Breaking Barriers for Women in Agriculture
Inclusion cultivates creativity and drives innovation, and the future success of the agri-food industry requires diverse perspectives. Maria Arreaza, marketing manager at Alltech Latin America, joins the Ag Future podcast to discuss the barriers for women in the sector and how organizations can bring new ideas to the table by promoting workplace equity and inclusion.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Maria Arreaza hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Tom: I'm Tom Martin, and with me is Maria Arreaza, Alltech marketing manager for Latin America, to talk about diversity, inclusion and connecting women from across the agri-food sector with mentors to champion their professional success. She joins us from Alltech Global Headquarters in Kentucky. Welcome, Maria.
Maria: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you, Tom, and with your audience this morning.
Tom: Well, let's begin, Maria, by having you tell us about your career journey within the agri-food industry.
Maria: Sure. Well, I'm originally from Venezuela, and I graduated in business with a minor degree in marketing. I left school around 21 to 22 years old and started my career in my home country, Venezuela, outside the industry, in the tourism industry. One day, I just saw this advertisement from a company called Alltech, and (my) curiosity just sparked. I went through the interview and fell in love with the (company’s) purpose.
At that time, the company was telling me their vision, about the ACE principle, which is really developing solutions that are friendly for the animals, environment and the consumer. That was 20 years ago. I just clicked with the purpose and the fact that I could be joining a company — that I will be creating, through my work, an impact by feeding the world. That's how my connection to agriculture came to become a reality, came to place.
Tom: Well, what would you say are the key opportunities and the key challenges facing diversity and inclusion in the agri-food industry at the moment? I guess we need to break that into two questions, and begin with the opportunities that you see.
Maria: For me, (one of) the (greatest) opportunities right now is the interest of the new generation, who are learning more about how they can really make an impact and make a difference through their work and their daily actions. So, that gives agriculture an enormous opportunity because, like I said initially, we are ultimately feeling the work.
There are also concerns about the impact of agriculture in the environment, but from my point of view, the fact that you could show purpose, a clear purpose, in a name is a humongous opportunity to attract new talent — especially people who are really looking forward to having a direct impact in their communities through local restaurants, farming and so on and so forth.
Tom: And the second part of that question: How about the challenges that are facing diversity and inclusion?
Maria: At the same time, competition is high. Right now, all we hear about is the talent — it's like a battle for talent, right? During the global pandemic, many things shifted — the ways of working, the appreciation of talent, the use of skills in the workforce shifted completely. And I would say it's hard to get the right talent into place and keep coming to the industry, for all the greatest challenges, (including) going beyond the males and the traditional profiles that would apply for this type of job.
I mean, agriculture might not be the most sexy industry, to a degree. People really don't understand what it's about. When you talk about agriculture, you might think of farming and, you know, harvesting, but it goes beyond that. I believe — especially the people who are working in marketing and communications — we have in front of us a huge challenge of communicating what the industry is about, the real significance of the industry, and the impact that we have in the work (that we do).
Sure, it's hard. It's hard to get the right talent, because competition is high. At the same time, there is an opportunity for us to really showcase what agriculture is about. It's beyond what is advertised or stigmatized, to a degree. There are a lot of opportunities on using emerging technology in the industry to really completely reshape the landscape of the industry to create a better world. It may sound a little cliché, but I truly believe we are in the right place to do that.
Tom: What would you say is the significance of inclusion and creating an equitable workforce in the agri-food industry?
Maria: Well, for me, inclusion and diversity are key. My answer might be twofold. One, diversity and inclusion bring a diversity of ideas, which is super crucial to go beyond traditional solutions. When you are in front of a great challenge or facing a great challenge, you cannot tackle those challenges with the same level of understanding or the same mindset that you have (always had). That's when you need diversity of opinions (and) a healthy, complete debates of ideas so you can really incorporate the point of view and understand the point of view and have more empathy for the different perspectives. If you create your company or your business surrounded by people that think only like you, well, you're going to get just the same results. That will be, for me, the most important thing.
Tom: Well, I guess this next question really goes to what you just said, but maybe we can expand on that, and that's how ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce helps address those challenges that you've mentioned that are facing agriculture.
Maria: Well, like I mentioned initially, only having males and technical agriculture-backgrounded people in the industry is not going to help us to elevate the sector and to reshape the business, just because of the reasons I've mentioned previously. So, I would say that it's crucial that the company's businesses and managers are thinking about this every single time. It's not only bringing and attracting people from different backgrounds to our business; it's also making sure they're included in the important conversations.
I’d like to expand on that point. It’s one thing to hire people from different backgrounds; (it’s) another thing to make sure they’re represented at the table — they have a seat at the table and their voices are heard. You might have diversity, but you may not have inclusion. Inclusion is, to me, more crucial and more important, because it gives you the warranty that you are bulletproofing yourself against your own bias, your confirmation bias, and that you are considering different perspectives on your decision-making and on the things you want to do and create.
Tom: So, the problem may remain the same, but by bringing various cultures to the table, you bring various perspectives on how to solve that problem to the table. Is that what you’re saying?
Maria: Yes, that is exactly correct.
Tom: So, what do you think are the implications of diversity for the next generation for attracting fresh talent?
Maria: Well, I'd probably answer this question based on my experience as a mother and looking at my teenager and how she's interacting. Like, her friends are pretty much in the virtual world (and are) from all kinds of different backgrounds, different cities. I don’t know where they are, but they’re everywhere in this world, when they’re playing video games. So, by looking at her and seeing how she's making a connection and building relationships in a completely different way than I had when I grew up in Venezuela — (which was) just with the same people. You know, we look the same. We speak the same.
To me, the new generation, I’m hoping, are going to have a lot more flexibility and, perhaps, sensibility about differences. I’m hoping that the new generation is going to grow up thinking that diversity is the common state rather than the exception, Tom. I don't know if I'm explaining myself. For me, everybody who speaks in Spanish looks the same but came from different families. For my daughter, she will think this is funny. She has friends from everywhere around the world. She's getting exposure through the internet — and I'm talking about positive exposure and positive information — from all kinds of people and experiences around the world. To me, that has broadened her perspective. When she comes to the workplace — and I'm hoping she comes to agriculture, of course — she is going to come with a whole different mindset. She's going to come with expecting flexibility, expecting to be heard, expecting to be seeing these different colors and points of view.
So, I believe companies have to incorporate those artifacts in their communications, in their culture; showcase flexibility; showcase a diversity of opinions; showcase that there is a place for everybody in the company, more than — beyond backgrounds. You're creating a place where people can have the space and the freedom to voice out what they think and what they want to achieve.
Tom: Well, you've been doing this for a while, Maria. I'm just wondering what changes you have seen over the course of your career in terms of diversity and inclusion.
Maria: Yeah, that's a good question. Yeah, twenty years in the industry is a little bit of time. I would say that the most significant change I have observed so far is more women in the workforce in, maybe, nontraditional positions. I'm talking a little bit more about managerial and executive positions. It used to be mostly male; I remember, in 99% of the meetings, 99% of the time that I was attending a meeting, I was the only female, and the youngest. That’s shifted now. If I go to a meeting nowadays, you'll probably see three women in there — and one of them is the boss, not a man. So, it has been interesting to showcase that.
I also have observed — and I'm talking specifically about Latin America — succession in place, and daughters taking after their parents, (joining) the business, and really embracing the family business again, which is very, very, very good to see. In the past, the newer generation would have shown no interest in agriculture or in the family business. I have seen observed a little bit of the change. The most significant (change), I would say, (is that) I'm seeing more females in the industry in roles that are more managerial and with a little bit more power, to a degree, and influence. And I'm thrilled to see that happen.
Tom: Do barriers to the inclusion of women in agriculture remain? And if so, what would you say are the most significant among them?
Maria: I would say it will depend. For managerial roles, for departments like the one that I am (in), marketing, or for that type of job, the barriers that I see not only relate to agriculture but in any industry is providing more support systems to women. I'm talking about childcare, fixed wages, maternity leave or flexibility for female workers to care for their family while, at the same time, having a healthy contribution, healthy life and healthy work.
I believe a lot of improvements have been made, but still, there is pressure. And right now, a lot of — during the pandemic, a lot of female workers were really struggling. It is known that many resigned their positions because they have to decide between taking care of their families and taking care of their job. So, that, I would say, could be a barrier and, at the same time, an opportunity for companies to enable those systems, those support systems, that are going to be allowing women to work and feel like they're also taking care of their families and having a whole life.
Tom: You know, Maria, this pandemic that we've been going through has been very revealing. It's pulled back the curtain on a number of things, among them something that's critical to what you're talking about there, and that is childcare. Do you feel that perhaps because of this understanding of the — or let me put it this way, a better, deeper understanding of the direct connection between workforce and childcare, because we understand that better now — do you think there might be, we might finally see some improvement on that front?
Maria: I think so. I have experienced it myself, personally, in the sense that women, we tend not to ask for help. I personally hesitate many times to ask for help, but I have to ask, Tom. (During the pandemic) I said, “I don't have childcare for my daughters. I need a little bit of flexibility.” And the answer was, "Yes, we can accommodate you." I was kind of not surprised, I would say, by that, but it was a relief.
And I believe changes are coming. I believe there is a whole new opportunity for us to really understand what work means. The definition of work has changed completely. The definition is shifting, and it has changed completely as well. Work is not eight-to-five or nine-to-six. Work is just the impact you have when you sit down and have focus and accomplish what you're supposed to. To me, we came back to the sense of what purpose is, what clarity means, intentionality, why I'm doing things, what's the reason behind (it) and what I'm trying to accomplish. And when we really know, we have clarity of purpose. And when we put intentionality behind it, I believe our productivity increases and the quality of the work increases, and companies thrive and people thrive at the same time.
Tom: I'd like to drill down into one thing that you've mentioned there, because (we’re) still making that connection between workforce and the availability of childcare, and ask you: What does quality, affordable, accessible childcare mean in terms of productivity? How does it translate into greater productivity?
Maria: Well, from my personal experience as a mom, if I'm not worried about who's taking care of my children — are they getting the needs that they're supposed to? Are they being educated? Are they engaged? Are they not (being) exposed to the information that they shouldn’t be on the internet? — if I have all of these points checked, the one hour that I'm going to be working on whatever it is, that hour is 100% towards that and not worrying about anything else. If I have 100% of my brain capacity to dedicate, creativity, personally, flows. I'm not anxious about, “Oh my gosh, what's happening?” Because what ends up happening is you're not here or you're not there. You're not in the present moment. You feel bad because you're working and your family is alone, or if you're with your family, you feel like you're slacking because you're not working at your fullest potential. So, affordable childcare means, like, you are going to have the capacity to focus your energy on what you're supposed to be doing in that moment. I don't know if that answers your question.
Tom: It does. So, let's say that an organization has taken care of childcare. They're providing great childcare or the flexibility that you need. What else can an organization do to promote inclusion and diversity within their organization or team?
Maria: Yeah, that's a really good question. And I would say, in a lot of things, I have seen many companies that have really put a lot of effort on doing practical things. Like, from the hiring process, they're starting to write differently — and I'm talking about literally the wording for the job. If the job boards or the position they're advertising is well-known, depending on the language for certain roles, only certain people will apply.
So, that's one thing that companies can do. The other is making sure you're creating the services for cross-functionality and collaboration in the front-end products. Sometimes, even though we might — like I said several times — we might have diversity, we don't have inclusion, and a way to promote that is allowing those outside of the work project to be led by cross-functional teams from different areas, different departments and different backgrounds. That's the way that you, individually, can expand your network, your relationships, your understanding of different cultures, but also, the company can make sure that they're including everybody and the opinion of everybody's perspectives on different products. In other words, just because it's a marketing project, it doesn't mean that only the marketing department needs to work on it. If it is about the purpose of the company and we all are part of the company, why not invite all the departments? So, expand the collaboration through external stakeholders, customers, suppliers, NGOs and so on.
Collaboration is big. Nowadays, in agriculture, it's going to be crucial. We cannot achieve the purpose of feeding the world in a sustainable way without reaching out to others. One thing that I personally learned from the pandemic is I cannot do things alone. I need connection. I need connectivity. I need to feel included and be part of something bigger than myself. That's what makes me a human — and particularly and specifically, a happy human.
Tom: All right. That's Maria Arreaza, Alltech marketing manager for Latin America. Thank you so much, Maria.
Maria: Thank you, Tom. It's been a pleasure.