‘I’d love to see a female president of a farm organisation’ – McCarthy

“Diverse companies are more successful – it’s as simple as that,” according to the CEO of Bord Bia, Tara McCarthy.

Speaking after the publication of the Agrifood Diversity and Inclusion Forum’s Pulse Survey – developed by Bord Bia and Aon (the global professional services firm) – McCarthy shed some light on its headline findings.

Based on responses from 46 CEOs and senior business leaders; plus, 204 employees – working in a range of small, to medium, to large-scale companies in the Irish food and drinks sector – the survey is aimed at understanding current challenges for women in the workplace and to help accelerate greater diversity across the industry over time.

Some of the key findings include the following:
  • 85% of business leaders in the Irish food and drink sector state that attracting and developing “diverse talent” within the industry impacts growth prospects;
  • Four out of five CEOs said they rank gender equality, diversity and inclusion as priorities for their organisation;
  • Flexibility in the workplace is still the most important criteria for employees when assessing employment opportunities – with some 79% saying they are provided with flexibility in working hours and seven in 10 within the industry offered the opportunity of either part-time working, job sharing or working from home options.

However, the survey also concludes that there is “a clear disconnect” between business leaders and their employees on some key issues around diversity and inclusion.

This is supported by the finding that, while 84% of business leaders state that gender equality, diversity and inclusion are “priorities” for their organisation, only 63% of employees believe this is true where they work.

In fact, the survey found that one in five employees believe diversity and inclusion are “a box to be ticked” by companies.

Delving deeper into this finding, McCarthy outlines how shortcomings on communication between CEOs and employees on a company’s diversity and inclusion strategy can lead to a lack of awareness of policies in place.

Being consistent

Speaking to AgriLand, McCarthy said: “This gap shows the importance of communication.

“Employees felt that a company has a strategy – a very clear strategy – and yet the employers weren’t as advanced on the strategy as such.

“The employers felt that they had activities organised; but the employees, I guess, were still judging for where they felt the strategy was – versus the activities.

“This shows that unless you are communicating in a very, very holistic way on this topic – and in a consistent manner with individual activities – the impact will get lost.

“And what we’re looking to do is to support companies on strategy development so that they can build their confidence in that – and when they have that strategy developed then they can cluster their activities behind that.

But I was disappointed to see that one in five thought that gender equality and diversity and inclusion was ‘a box to be ticked’ by organisations.

McCarthy stresses that improved approaches to diversity and inclusion must continue to be “a strategic priority” for companies; while role models are also considered very important.

“We know that more diverse companies are successful – it’s as simple as that.

“That’s why we are very, very motivated to stay on this track. Yes, companies have been doing the activities – but they have not been communicating the scale of those activities, the logic behind those activities or the breadth of those activities.

“When the individual [employee] doesn’t see the strategy they view it as ‘a box to tick’.”

Senior leadership

McCarthy says the reason why this information is being published is to encourage “data driven” debate and discussion on the topic – a strategy that has already proven fruitful in-house at Bord Bia.

Over the last few years, the Irish Food Board has succeeded in establishing 60% female representation on its senior leadership team.

In terms of new talent, the agency has also welcomed its largest intake of graduates in its 25-year history (across its Marketing Fellowship Programme, Origin Green Ambassador Programme and Food Works programmes) with 70 new graduates – 50:50 women.

However, McCarthy admits there are still some challenges at board level.

“Bord Bia doesn’t appoint its own board, as part of the semi-state structure. Obviously, we have a strong industry play on that one.

“So we’re probably at about the 30% to 35% at our board levels – it’s not 50%,” she said.

The fact that the situation is fluid with different appointments made over time, gives McCarthy cause for optimism when it comes to building on the board’s current gender ratio.

“We source from the leaders of our food industry. On our main board are the presidents of the two main farming organisations.

I wouldn’t say that [the role of farm organisation president] is always going to be a male. I would love, at some stage in the future, that that could be female.

“But traditionally…it’s always been a male,” she said.

“In other roles there are female CEOs and our Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine representative is a female senior official.

“All of that does evolve in time – and we’re looking to make sure that the tool-kits are available to our industry,” she said.

Role models

While McCarthy highlights intentions to expand on challenges regarding broader diversity in the Irish food and drink sector workplace, she explains that they have purposely focused on starting the conversation with women.

“We’ve started the conversation of diversity around the female agenda because research has told us that if you can sort the female one – you actually happen to sort out a lot of the other ones afterwards.

That is because females will embrace the diversity in other ways and bring other evidence into it – that’s what the research tells us.

“But companies need to have the tool-kits to address it. That is everything from: ‘How do you write a job profile? How do you interview? How do you create an unbiased interview panel? How do you look for unconscious bias?’

“You have to be aware of it, so that you are bringing down any of the barriers that you didn’t even realise you had. By training and giving those tool-kits to our industry that is how we will get better.”

Drawing on a popular phrase that’s often used to shine a light on the profile of women in sport, McCarthy turned to the importance of leading by example.

You can’t be what you can’t see. Having role models in the industry is huge.

“But also having mentors and coaches – they don’t have to be female – but that’s all in the tool-kit as well.

“It’s about being aware of where the barriers are, being consistently committed to removing them and, in doing so, you are making sure that you are getting the best out of your workforce.

“Our ambition is that the food industry will be the most attractive place to work for any young person – and that they are attracted to it because of the excitement, the career opportunity and because they can use their qualification.

“But we have to move together to remove potential barriers that we may not, even today, be aware of – be it flexibility, ensuring work/life balance – these are all really important assets that our industry can provide.

“Covid-19 has taught us all that we can do more than we thought we could – and that is where the next phase has to go,” McCarthy concluded.

The Forum

Over the course of the last year, the Agri-Food Diversity and Inclusion Forum (AgDIf) has rolled out a series of masterclasses to accelerate diversity in the agri-food sector, including webinars on: ‘How to Grow your Talent Pool’; ‘Creating a Culture of Flexible Working’; and ‘Overcoming your Recruitment Challenges’.

The AgDIf is a collaborative initiative with industry, led by Bord Bia and Aon, in partnership with The 30% Club in relation to gender diversity.

The initiative, created in 2017, aims to position the Irish food and drink sector as “the industry of choice” at “all levels” and across “all fields” of discipline.

The forum consists of an advisory group, supported by a taskforce, and includes business leaders from the following organisations: Accenture; Arthur Cox; Arytza; Dawn Meats; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; East Coast Bakehouse; Errigal Bay; Glanbia; Greencore; Irish Distillers; Keelings; Ornua; Kepak; Kerry Group; Ribworld; The 30% Club; Aon; and Bord Bia.

Meanwhile, the taskforce comprises members of Ceres; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Errigal Bay; Glanbia; Greencore; Ibec; Keelings; Kerry Group; Oliver Carty; Ornua; Ribworld; The 30% Club; Aon; and Bord Bia.