One of the goals of my business is to champion women’s success within the Food industry, to support them to be more assertive, feel heard and to have successful careers without running themselves into the ground.
I often get asked “why do you only work with women?”. The reality is that I don’t. I have some male clients but I do speak mainly about my work with women.
The next question is “why just the Food Industry?” to which the answer is the same – I do work with a small number of people and businesses outside of Food… however…
The reason I choose to work with, and champion, Women in the Food Industry is simple. I have been a woman in the Food Industry for over 20 years and it’s a tough environment. There is inequality, there are harsh male dominated environments and there is inequality in leadership. And, it nearly ran me into the ground.
When it comes to leadership, the stats speak for themselves. According to IGD Inclusion and Diversity Research (2020) only 7% of CEO’s and only 28% of Board Level execs in Food & Grocery are women.
The only functions where there is some parity are Marketing (50% female leaders) and HR (72% female leaders). Without female role models at the top, where is the inspiration for young female graduates finding their feet in our industry? I for one can remember feeling like the only women that made it to the top were those who had become quite hardened by the environment.
It’s not just about the stats in leadership roles, it’s about equipping young women with the skills they need to survive in this environment to ensure succession planning at all levels. It’s about nurturing leadership skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence – only then will we start to see cultural change.
Your ‘work ethic’ will get you far (and then it won’t)
For too long now, women have been recruited into roles because they “are the right cultural fit” which we all know is code for “will work as hard as possible for the company”, only to be side lined at future points in their careers when they inevitably get frazzled from constantly trying prove themselves by taking on extra, working late and being perfect.
And I just want to clarify here that I am not talking about women having career breaks to have babies here. Yes, that’s a factor, just as it is in all industries but there are whole bunch of other reasons why women become disheartened, disengaged and choose not to take the steps into leadership in the Food industry.
Here are some of the factors that I have witnessed over the years, which I believe to contribute:
1. Bullying still exists in the Food Manufacturing and Grocery industry – there I said it. I have seen way too many times individuals be crushed by the words or behaviour of others around them. It happens between retailers and suppliers and it happens cross functionally within businesses. But let’s not blame men here, I experienced bullying early in my career from a female counterpart at a retailer. This isn’t all about gender, but my point is an angry male factory manager can be both physically and mentally terrifying to a young female graduate (also spoken from experience) and as women we are often less well equipped to handle it. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Women are hard wired to be helpful. We are brought up as girls to be nurturing, to be people pleasers and to put others needs ahead of our own. Little girls are rewarded for being “good”, for being quiet and for not making a fuss. We carry this with us into adulthood and it does not bode well in an environment that will happily take advantage of that. On top of this, women take on more responsibility for caring roles outside of work which adds a layer of pressure and ‘mental load’.
3. Women take on more than they “should”. We say yes to everything in and out of work (see above for why) and we take on responsibility for more than we should. Again, this is a generalisation (there will always be exceptions) but what I have witnessed over the years is women that are often more emotionally invested when something goes wrong, but not being equipped with how to handle those emotions at work. This leads to self doubt, which leads to us second guessing ourselves and not pushing ourselves forwards any more.
4. Lack of flexibility is detrimental. I get it, it’s manufacturing and retail. The nature of those industries mean that shift working is necessary and operations need to be present to make it happen. But for way too long the “bums on seats” mentality for support functions doesn’t bode well for women and the flexibility often needed for responsibilities outside of work. Maybe WFH in Covid will have changed that a bit. I do hope so.
I don’t think it’s always conscious discrimination, I think it is a culture based on a history of male dominated ways of working. I think that something needs to change to truly embrace supporting women in Food – firstly to give them the tools and support to cope with the harsh environment and then to take the lead in changing the culture themselves.
In my work, I will continue to help women and teams be more assertive, understand how to influence better and how to use their emotional intelligence to their advantage.
So, back to the title of this article – let me be clear on my why …
I am a Woman in Food. I love working in Food, but on many occasions I have been ready to jack it all in. I talk to women every day that are ready to jack it all in.
I can’t single handidly change the culture of a whole industry. But it is my mission to empower women in Food to be more assertive, to get the recognition they deserve, and then collectively we can change the culture.
That is how we will effect change, together.
You can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to chat about this some more.