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International Women’s Day

Tue 05, Mar 2019

The AIA has numerous women members in its ranks. Three of our current National and Divisional Board Members agreed to an interview about their roles in Australian agriculture. As AIA Chair I am pleased to be able to work with agricultural professionals who as so passionate about their careers, the profession of agriculture, and the AIA.

I asked them each to share insights on how they have contributed to agriculture and natural resources in their roles, any professional or personal insights that they’d like to share, and finally, what changes do you think are needed in the AIA. Some of the responses were challenging and as members we should all reflect on the insights they have shared.

Virginia Shaw, National AIA Board Director has taken an interesting path from the city, thought the country as a pig producer, and then to Canberra where she has held government roles advising Federal Ministers.

“I have been privileged to not only be a hands on primary producer (pigs, cattle, cereal crops, irrigation farming, seed rice production) but a General Councillor of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, a member of the Board of the Melbourne Market Authority, and an original member of the Victorian Women in Agriculture and Resource Management group, which was established by the Department of Natural Resource Management”

“On graduating from the Australian Rural Leadership Program, I moved to Canberra to be an Adviser to the Hon. Warren Truss, when he was the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry”

Virginia has some sound advice and that is to get involved with your industry representative body at any level, or any organisation, as you will learn so much and be able to give something back.

“Don’t ever think you are too old to learn something new, but remember you have to walk before you can run.

“Move with the times, accept that things change, but your life experience will always be valued when you offer your insights in a respectful way.

“Most importantly, be humble, listen to your peers, make your own decisions and stand by your principles and ethics.

Virginia’s has ideas on how we as the AIA need to change.

“We have to move away from being introspective and looking backwards. The recent Royal Commissions have shown that as professionals we have a duty of care to our clients, peers and communities. This is why I believe the strengthening of our CPAg and the introduction of the Chartered Scheme is so important.

“I also actively encourage members to consider putting themselves forward for their Division Committees, as we need to encourage diversity at the Divisional level. For this to happen, we need to see generational change at the Division level.

Margaret Jewel, Divisional AIA Chair Queensland, started out as a keen young environmentalist who was very aware of the strong links between environmental sustainability, climate change, and the need to nourish a growing world population.

“This led me on a path towards genetic modification and biotechnology and I spent many years with a pipette in my hand analysing Sorghum and Cynodon DNA sequences.

“Having experienced working as a consultant prior to doing my PhD, I had always wanted to return to a consulting career, but as a consultant with greater insights into agricultural innovation and how it could be implemented in real world situations to increase food production.

This has led Margaret to her current role with Premise, where she works across intensive and extensive livestock, irrigation, broadacre cropping, horticulture, urban agriculture, supply chain analysis, soil science, and feasibility and business case studies.

“I have a strong appreciation of the challenges associated with technology adoption, both from the perspectives of the innovators and start-ups who are trying to sell their technologies, and the perspectives of producers who are struggling to choose the right technologies for their operation, a choice which is always associated with an opportunity cost of foregoing other technologies.

Apart from her day job and Divisional AIA Chair Role, Margaret supports the Young Ag Network, and setting up a conference at UQ’s Gatton Campus, around the theme of how to engage with, and retain, today’s youth in the agriculture industry.

Margaret’s advice to others in the sector is clear.

“It’s a challenging world in agriculture at the moment, especially on the east coast of Australia where producers appear to be devastated by droughts or floods or both.

Parallel to that, she says there is a flood of agricultural technology and innovation in the market that promises to endow producers with everything they need to take their operations into a future promising increasing extreme weather events, increasing world populations, and increasing globalisation.

“However, the rate of adoption of these technologies is much slower than the rate of introduction and improvement of the technologies themselves”

Margaret thinks that like the agriculture industry itself, the AIA is also at a cross-roads.

“We are trying to re-engage with young people and we also appear to be trying to retain some of our longest serving members who are disillusioned with the new direction that the AIA is taking.”

“I think that the main changes that we need are to ensure that we provide opportunities for retired members and student members and everyone in between to get to know each other and to speak about what is going on in their particular agricultural area of interest.

“To put it simply, we are a network of people who share a common passion about agricultural science.

“Perhaps if we stay true to that, other successes for the institute will follow”.

Sarah Hunter, National AIA Board Member had no idea how my career was likely to unfold. 

“I can honestly say that it led to great experiences but followed no particular plan for the next twenty years.

“Nevertheless, it did involve a dairy and beef enterprise in eastern Ontario, lambing Rouge de l’Ouest in the English Midlands, running a food manufacturing and retail business in Sydney and then fifteen years helping to shape the future of animal health in Australia through the development and marketing of therapeutic products for cattle, sheep, horses and pets.”

“Accept challenges and all feedback, actively learn, volunteer for projects and back yourself.

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Sarah says that the animal health industry sees itself as very much a part of - and contributor to - Australian agriculture.

“The wellbeing and productivity of Australian cattle and sheep, pigs and poultry drive the investment of millions of dollars in the development of suitable treatments, which are designed with both the animals and the humans who care for them in mind.

“At times of natural disaster, employees and organisations mobilise to raise funds, to volunteer and to provide financial and in-kind support to those affected. The agricultural industry and its travails are very much front-of-mind and there is a strong emotional and physical connection.

“By contrast, and with some exceptions driven by close personal or brand relationships, the agricultural industry does not give much consideration to animal health, except as a cost input.

Sarah says this is a shame, especially given that the representatives and technical specialists employed by many animal health companies now fulfil an element of the need for agricultural extension which was once met in other ways. And, as befits good customer focus, they often make recommendations which are in the best interests of the producers and not their own short-term sales advantage, she says.

Sarah said she discovered quite how far this industry still has to go in terms of gender equality when launching the fundraising for the Kristina Hackett Memorial Scholarship at The University of Sydney.

“This is the first scholarship specifically for women demonstrating leadership attributes in animal health, veterinary medicine and agriculture, and it commemorates a talented scientist and researcher who made a great contribution to the livestock animal health industry”.

“In developing the framework for the scholarship and garnering financial support, it became clear that many decision-makers had a poor understanding of the mechanisms which could be utilised to address inequality and realise business potential”.

“There are a lot of women working in Australian agriculture. Many are visible in leadership roles, a fact which is often noted in media reporting”

Sarah argues that we will know we’ve reached a good place when this is not noteworthy in any way, and when there are so many women in lower-to-middle management positions that for an organisation not to have a 50:50 split across levels and disciplines would be the factor that is note worthy.

Sarah has been up until recently one of the most senior women in corporate animal health in Australia.

Sarah also has some good advice on what needs to change in the AIA.

“The most effective steps that the AIA members can make is to recognise, in their own businesses and in the AIA, the existence of unconscious bias in selection and decision-making and to take conscious steps to neutralise this.

“These steps can be as simple as awareness and to challenge or a line of questioning to uncover biases.

“It is not an onerous or bureaucratic process but does also have the advantage of promoting inclusion. And with inclusion comes a wealth of benefits which go well beyond being the right thing to do.

I encourage women to join the AIA and get active in the Divisions. With the National AGM coming up in April this year, now is the time to make the step to join the National Board. Feel free to reach out to Virginia, Margaret or Sarah.

For more detail on what is involved in nominating for a Divisional or National Board role, please feel free to contact me on 0439 011 434 or via email at or contact the National Office.   


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