Overcoming the Barriers Faced by in Women in Food and Agriculture

Understanding the reasons behind diversity issues in the agribusiness industry is key in overcoming them. Although we are seeing more diversity and inclusion in the industry, there is still a visible lack of women in the boardroom and in other high-ranking positions.

We spoke to Vesselina Shaleva, Deputy General Counsel at Bunge for Europe and Asia, and member of the WFA Advisory Board to understand more about the diversity issues faced in the industry and what companies like Bunge are doing to ensure a more diverse and inclusive environment.

[WFA] To start it would be great if you could tell our readers a bit about your career background and how you came to sit in your role?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “I graduated from law school in Bulgaria in 1998 and joined the Ministry of Justice immediately after. At the time Bulgaria was negotiating to become a member of the EU, so I was rather excited to be part of the process. In 2000, I earned a Fulbright scholarship to complete an LL.M program at Georgetown University Law School, and the time I spent in Washington, DC had a profound impact on my career development and aspirations. When I returned to Bulgaria I joined DGKV, one of the biggest law firms in Bulgaria, where as a young associate I had the incredible opportunity to work on major privatization and post-privatization transactions that were taking place in the early 2000s. In 2005 I joined Bunge in Geneva to focus primarily on its business in Eastern Europe and Russia and in 2010 I took over as General Counsel for Europe, Middle East, & Africa (EMEA), a role that later expanded to cover also Asia.”

[WFA] With your diverse background operating in the food and ag industry and outside it, do you think your gender impacted your career path in any way?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “I do not think that my gender has had a significant impact on my career or determined my professional growth. I grew up surrounded by working women and I never thought that my gender could jeopardize my professional career. However moving in-house to a commodity trading company, I started to realize that I was often the only woman in the room. I found networking and socializing were challenging at times. It was a new situation both for me and probably other women in similar positions to mine to which we had to adapt.”

[WFA] Thinking specifically about our industry, why do you think we have fewer women than men at many levels within the food and agriculture sector?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “I certainly cannot speak on behalf of the entire food and agriculture industry but based on my experience at Bunge, women are well represented at the mid-management levels, but the bigger challenge is to improve the representation of women at senior levels. In my view, traditionally agribusiness has been touted as a ‘male’ industry. In particular, the trading community has been closely-knit, often influenced by networking and contacts and that might have made it harder for women to penetrate this sector and gain insider status.”

“In addition, I believe there are unconscious biases towards women such as customers’ preference to deal with men, and the thought that pressure, competition, and intense travel schedules in trading were challenging for women with families. Regardless of the significant industry changes over the past years, the percentage of women on the trading floor continues to be low. The industry has to reckon with lingering conscious and unconscious biases, raise awareness, and openly face them to continue to advance towards diversity. We also have to recognize that significant strides were made as a result of which today we find ourselves in a more inclusive environment that offers women opportunities for a career path in food and agribusiness.”

[WFA] You mention that we an area we need to focus on is women moving into senior roles. What do you think are the main barriers here?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “More than barriers, I would say that there is a need to work on a robust talent pipeline to impact the presence of women at higher levels. We need more women at entry and mid-management levels so that more can make it to the top, especially in core business positions. Sometimes it can be easier to hire from outside of the industry for certain roles but having good knowledge of the business is always beneficial and a sine qua non for a successful business leader. To see more women at the leadership level, we need to work harder to make agribusiness an appealing and attractive option for women at entry levels, then retain them as they advance in their professional careers.”

[WFA] What will happen if we do not act now? How do you think having fewer women across businesses impacts our sector?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “Our sector is exposed to the same challenges and competitive pressures as most other businesses – we all need to adapt and evolve to be sustainable. Research has shown that the case for diversity is a predominantly business case. In other words, the industry will miss out on the benefits of having a gender-diverse workforce. First, gender diverse businesses tap into the entire talent pool available on the market being able to attract and retain professionals of all genders. Second, such companies tend to outperform their peers by benefitting from diverse viewpoints, ideas, and market insights. Last, gender diversity enhances the company pride and reputation and enables it to better serve today’s customer base, which is increasingly diverse.”

[WFA] I think the benefits are clear but it is also evident that action is vital for our industry. What are you doing at Bunge to address this issue and balance gender diversity at all levels?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “Different initiatives and employee resource groups inside Bunge have worked in recent years to raise awareness around diversity topics, make data more transparent, and promote some specific targets in certain issues. We are conscious we are in an early stage of a journey with long term objectives.”

“We make diversity data visible to our management by level and we have specific goals to increase the percentage of women leaders in higher management levels since it is where we see gender balance decreasing. However, success will not come if we only tie this topic to bonuses, KPIs, or quotas. At Bunge, we believe diversity must be embedded in our culture and that is where we are focusing now. The work around culture involves our top leadership and aims for a more global approach to diversity. It is important to raise awareness of unconscious bias within the company and among managers, making the uncomfortable conversation comfortable, and this will be part of the focus of the culture task force we are about to start. Having biases is natural, human, but opening our eyes and acknowledging them is key to move forward.”

[WFA] It is clear at Bunge you are putting in place the measures needed to start making a positive change. Is there anything we could do as an entire sector to address this problem?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “As an industry we have the responsibility to raise awareness of the possibilities this amazing industry has to offer to everyone, independent of gender. Certain areas or functions have indeed been more male-dominated in the past, and I believe we are all doing things to change that or to better promote our professional opportunities for all. The same way engineering was traditionally a male profession, we see nowadays more female engineers joining and succeeding at industrial operations positions in our processing facilities. Yet, gender balance is not frequent in certain professions along all our supply chain. As an industry, we have a role to play to ensure all types of careers in our companies are appealing to all and contribute to achieving higher diversity along all the supply chain. Again, I believe we have to promote gender balance not only as a “women’s issue” with initiatives raised and led by women. A collective effort is required and needs to be driven by all.”

[WFA] Thinking specifically about women in leadership, what processes could be implemented to ensure we do not lose women along their career journeys?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “We need to make more visible all the great career opportunities that an industry like ours has for women. Not to mention being part of a company that plays an essential role and whose purpose is to feed and fuel the world.”

“Having strong talent management and career development programs should trigger women’s interest to continue to look for professional growth in higher levels in the industry. Also creating and building a culture that focuses on taking unconscious bias out of the system will set the foundation to overcome the bias in the long run. Consistent deliberate discussion around diversity issues should be incorporated in all meetings, reviews, team training, and planning, making everyone part of the conversations, regardless of gender.”

 

[WFA] Finally can you say a few words about why you think the WFA campaign is so important?

[Vesselina Shaleva] “As mentioned earlier, the WFA campaign is a fantastic opportunity to keep the diversity conversation going both at an industry level and with our people and organization. Being intentional is at the core of boosting diversity in the basis of the WFA campaign, the intention is loud and clear. Moreover, it has created an open space for us to learn from each other, exchange ideas as well as identify common root causes and best practices based on the experience of our counterparts, and I think that is very important because collective thinking is always an empowering tool. Leading change in this topic and moving the needle together will impact not only in our companies but society as a whole.”

Hear from representatives from Bunge and other leading food and agribusiness stakeholders at the WFA Digital Fesitval.