Empowering women in the bush

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Australia lags behind the rest of the developed world in empowering rural women, according to a strategic analysis paper issued by Future Directions International.

Authored by research analyst Tess Marslen, Empowering Women in Agriculture: Australia and Beyond said the Australian agricultural industry was heavily dependent on women's off-farm work, much of which went unrecognised.

Regional and national organisations could play a key role in creating support networks for isolated rural women, Ms Marslen said.

"Grower and producer bodies should be encouraged to adopt changes that allow for greater membership and input from women," she said.

"Changing voting rights so that individuals within a farm partnership can become members in their own right would assist this.

"Women's organisations, such as the Country Women's Association, provide a forum for women to connect, share experiences and offer support.

"Unfortunately, in recent years the CWA has gained a reputation as a "white women's group", but with a national membership of more than 20,000 it has extensive potential as a platform for advocacy and change.

"The CWA's challenge is to improve its image among the broader population and to encourage the growth of other women's groups."

The report, which also noted women did not have adequate representation on rural decision-making bodies, received a mix response from key WA agricultural women.

WAFarmers board member and Albany zone president Lyn Slade, who farms at Mt Barker, agreed women were under-represented at the political and decision-making level.

However, she said she was aware of many farm businesses where women had equal input and decision-making roles in managing the family farm. "Certainly, I consider myself a farmer, rather than a farmer's wife," she said.

Mrs Slade said in terms of WAFarmers and other community roles, she had always felt her input was valued.

"I personally haven't found gender to be an issue," she said.

"Therefore, I wonder if the obstacle is that women are not putting themselves forward for such roles.

"The perception is definitely there, but it is this perception we have to overcome rather than the reality."

The FDI paper highlights how the "Women in Agriculture" movement in the 1990s made some progress in empowering women, but said momentum had declined and little progress had been made over the past decade.

Australian Women in Agriculture president Elizabeth Brennan, based in Wongan Hills, said the findings of the paper were disappointingly true.

At its peak in the 1990s, AWiA had nearly 1000 members, but this had since dwindled to less than a quarter of that amount.

She said the actions of the Australian Women in Agriculture had not faltered and the organisation had fought hard for 22 years to ensure women were recognised and heard.

"Unfortunately, you need those in the decision-making positions, whether government or otherwise, to be open to listening, which is not happening," Ms Brennan said.

"For instance, AWiA was very active in its submission to the White Paper on Agricultural Competitiveness.

"However, in the second iteration of the Green Paper, very little of the key policy recommendations referenced women's roles, gender considerations or the majority of the holistic approaches to agricultural development that we'd proposed."

She said while there was funding in the 1990s, now there was no funding to support the AWiA organisation and all work was voluntary, which presented challenges for women who dedicatedmore hours off-farm on top of on-farm roles.

Responding to the report, Marie O'Dea, who controls the financial aspect of her Mt Barker sheep-farming business with husband Ian Kelly, said although women were under-represented in agri-politics or agri-business, she felt this was no different to that of other industries. She said there had been a marked improvement in recent years.

For instance, last year Yealering sheep producer Kelly Manton-Pearce became the first female director to sit on the WAMMCO board.

Although CBH has not yet had a female grower as a board member, this year Bonnie Rock farmer Romina Nicoletti is standing for a seat in District 1.

But Ms O'Dea said she was disappointed the senior executive team of the Department of Food and Agriculture WA was entirely male.

Ms O'Dea said women were often not made partners when marrying into larger farming businesses but said this was often because many carried complex business structures, such as family trusts that were designed to be tax efficient and to cater for succession planning.

"The same is true for men when marrying the daughter of such a business, this is not an issue for women alone," she said.

WA's peak lobby groups said it was impossible to break down member genders (because of business units being listed) but there was strong female representation at both member and senior levels.

According to WA Farmers, one board member (Lyn Slade) and two senior staff members were female.

However, AgConnectWA, WAFarmers' group for under-35 year olds, had 50 per cent female representation on the board, and among members.

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association has 40 per cent female representation serving on the executive or chairing the commodity committees, including vice-president Ellen Rowe, also chairwoman of the pastoral committee, and Jano Foulkes Taylor, who is vice-chairwoman.

PGA livestock committee vice-chairwoman is Bindi Murray.

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