Women an untapped ag resource

Shan Goodwin
By Shan Goodwin
Updated October 14 2019 - 4:52am, first published October 13 2019 - 7:30pm
ON THE JOB: Carly McLean, store manager at Bruces Meats, St Agnes, South Australia.

WORKPLACE diversity expert Julie McKay tells the story of a firefighter who launched a passionate argument at one of her seminars that women were simply not physically strong enough for many jobs.

He demanded to know if she could 'dead lift' a 95 kilogram unconscious person out of a burning building on her own.

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She couldn't, she agreed.

But the reality was that situation had not occurred in living memory, Ms McKay said. It would actually breach the service's protocols. Firefighters would be in that burning house with a crew or not at all.

Physical barriers to women working in agricultural was one of the key issues raised at an event run by the Meat Business Women initiative in Brisbane this week.

MBW aims to make the red meat game attractive to female talent and to support those already working within it.

The Australian Meat Industry Council has been instrumental in its development in Australia and hosted the Brisbane event, which more than 250 people, mostly women, attended.

Whether women could physically do some jobs in agriculture was high on the agenda in the brainstorming sessions and it was the first question fired at Ms McKay, one of the keynote speakers.

The lead partner for diversity and inclusion at PwC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers) and a former executive director of UN Women Australia, Ms McKay served as the gender advisor to the Chief of the Australian Defence Force working to support its monumental cultural change.

AGENT FOR CHANGE: Gender diversity expert Julie McKay speaking at the Meat Business Women event in Brisbane last week.

She said there were three key aspects to the physical barrier issue.

In some cases, the belief that women were too weak for certain roles was simply a myth so education was the answer.

Secondly, the ability for women to perform physical tasks alters dramatically with specialised training.

"This is not reducing the standards of a competency test but rather saying what does a 12-week physical training period look like on the particular muscle groups that are required here," she said.

"Experience tells us the vast majority of women are able to get up to standard with this simple type of intervention."

And thirdly, as in the firefighter's case, it's about challenging what the job really is, particularly in a world increasingly influenced by workplace health and safety, automation and machinery.

Championing cultural change

Despite women making up 46 per cent of Australia's workforce, they account for just 25pc of the post-farmgate meat industry at a time when up to 4000 job vacancies are advertised at any given time.

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The latest Census data shows the number of women recorded as working in the overall agriculture industry amounted to 32pc of the workforce.

Put simply, women are an untapped agriculture resource and the red meat industry is leading the charge to change that.

Ms McKay said one of the most powerful arguments for why gender equality was good for all was in the work on analysing end-of-life reflections.

"What is really clear in the research is that men regret not spending more time with their families," she said.

"Women's regrets are about the societal norms they accepted and perhaps not living their best and fullest lives."

Ms McKay said when organisations faced significant external challenges, such as the global financial crisis in 2009, one of the key things that helped them weather the storm was greater diversity and inclusion in the workforce.

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Red meat was facing plenty of external challenges, she said.

In fact, of all the industries she had worked with, the meat industry had one of the most compelling cases for effecting gender diversity.

"There are significant challenges around labour shortages. Huge effort is going into challenging migration laws and engaging governments in labour access conversations," she said.

"Alongside that is the fact every single organisation in this country increasingly has to focus on workplace health and safety under legislation and all of the research shows us the more women working in risky sectors, the more risks are reduced because diverse teams have better conversations and see things differently."

Finally, customer insight work was pointing to an enormous 'pull' power of women working on the frontline. Given three-quarters of fresh red meat purchases in Australia are made by women, that's something the industry can not afford to ignore.

No roadmap

While there was no roadmap on the subject, Ms Mckay did offer up some tried-and-proven tactics she felt the red meat business could benefit from.

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"Job ads in the meat industry are dominated by masculine language," she said.

"They don't say this a male-only job but they says things like 'you need to be exceptionally fit' or 'you need to hit the ground running.' These are not phrases women identify with.

"Instead, talk about what the role is, what skills are needed and what opportunities are on offer."

Try-before-you-buy programs have also been hugely successful in sectors like mining and defence, Ms Mckay said.

"Women in the main seem to be far more focussed on 'tell me more about this before I sign up'," she said.

"And the spectrum of roles in your industry is enormous but a lot of women are simply not aware of them."

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Shan Goodwin

Shan Goodwin

National Agriculture Writer - Beef

Shan Goodwin steers ACM’s national coverage of the beef industry. Shan has worked as a journalist for 30 years, the majority of that with agricultural publications. She spent many years as The Land’s North Coast reporter and has visited beef properties and stations throughout the country and overseas. She treats all breeds equally.

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