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Fiona Lake: Challenging Stereotypes and Promoting Women in the Ag Tech Space

Fiona Lake is an agriculture specialist, photographer and writer based in Australia. She sees women as the overlooked key to speeding up the glacial pace of agricultural tech adoption, including the use of drones on farms. And says if you want to be successful, work and tenacity are an essential requirement.

Q: Can you share a little about your background experience as a woman in the food and agriculture industry?

I grew up on a wheat/sheep farm on a state border, where there’s still agricultural and demographic differences on either side, largely due to historic state government policy and programme differences.
This is perhaps why I have a low tolerance regarding parochialism and “siloism” in ag and other industries. On the side I work to reduce wheel-reinvention and spread innovation news via one of my favourite creations: A Twitter account that promotes agricultural events worldwide (@Agri_events).

I started taking photographs in the early 70s and selling them in the early 80s, featuring the million-acre cattle station I worked on. I set my business up to fund a rural advocacy need that wasn’t being met and to simultaneously provide income as I was living more than 100km from the nearest towns, too far for off-farm employment to be an economic option. It morphed into a multi-strand entrepreneurial enterprise – to date I’ve published 3 books (featuring photographs of more than sixty of Australia’s largest cattle stations, the largest in the world), run many photography exhibitions (most recently in Australia’s Embassy to the US, in Washington DC), and run workshops across Australia on photography, best-practice social media use and drones in agriculture. Due to shifting economics and technology I’ve had to ‘reinvent’ myself several times and this was particularly tough because there’s no rule book or role models for what I do. When others have taken up what I’ve launched into, I move onto another unmet need that has been waiting in the wings. I plan years in advance but can take up an unexpected offer at the drop of a hat. I became a speaker regarding drones in agriculture by sheer accident – simply because there aren’t any other women doing it! I keep thinking, “the invitations will dry up soon,” but they’ve kept coming, so there’s still more work to do.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered or witnessed of women working within this industry?

Enough challenges to fill a book and these have increased past the age of 50, as in Australian society older women tend to become “invisible.” Added to the fact that agriculture is deemed to be a “sunset” industry run by straw-chewing hicks or worse—just a pack of environmental vandals by many in the position to influence public views, i.e. many urban journalists plus people in creative industries, from film and TV and marketing agencies to the literary, music and art world. Ever since my business began, I’ve loved the challenge of being proof that stereotypes need rethinking.

I’ve taken aerial images since 1988 and I accidentally upped the ante when I took up flying drones a few years ago. And challenging ageism added itself to the list. At tradeshows I can stand in front of my work, with my name all over it, introduce myself and talk about where I’ve visited to take the images – and people still then ask who took the photographs. I am “mansplained” regarding using drones at every turn despite being very experienced, fully licensed and invited to present at drone conferences on three continents, with the fourth in June (in Shenzhen, the global centre of drone manufacture).

Unfortunately – womensplaining is also alive and thriving.

Women as well as men have said to me, “you’re so lucky that your husband lets you travel,” to which I’ve been known to respond, “I wriggled out of the chains in the middle of the night and stole a car.”

Some still say, “who looks after your children when you’re away?” Even though they know my youngest son is nearly 18. Do people say these things to men? Doubt it.

I have an extra layer of challenges because what I do is unique. The art world thinks I’m just a businessperson, the business world thinks I’m an artist and not to be taken seriously, and now I live in town, many in agriculture view me as an outsider—a “townie.” The truth is that what I’ve spent more than 30 years doing is really self-funded rural philanthropy. I love the diversity of my business, but it does cause some teeth gnashing at times. Art is additionally powerful because it is underestimated.

Q: What do you think it takes to be a successful woman in our sector?

In terms of leadership, there’s two streams in Australia: The conventional route—via industry awards and formal leadership roles—and the solitary route, as I have chosen. The latter doesn’t have the high profile but can be even more effective, in terms of influencing, leading and inspiring others—if what you do is unique and useful. Because there’s no constraints and requirements to toe the official line of an employer, if you’re self-employed. I did what I wanted to do, what I thought needed to be done—and became a role model by sheer accident.

Either way, work and tenacity are required. Plus, an ability to identify problems that need solving and original ideas on how to do so.

Being egalitarian and independent by nature, I’ve very rarely asked for help and from the outset I’ve taken care to give before receiving and assist others that I recognise as givers rather than takers.
As I prefer they have a clear field to thrive as they bring others along with them. This philosophy has underpinned my work. I have seen some other women in ag climb to the top by empire building and it’s very disappointing. Along the way, some fantastic individuals have gone out of their way to help me.
Some fabulous women – but mostly men.

Q: Where do you think there are opportunities for women in food and agriculture?

Ag tech. Which is in desperate need of the other 50% of the population to drive development and uptake. Women who are good at STEM subjects and/or humanities are vital.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been on a mission to encourage rural women to fly drones as there’s fantastic regional business opportunities that are ideally suited to rural women. And Australia, like many countries, has the ridiculous situation of having more women flying manned aircraft than drones! We also have a higher percentage of women trained to shear sheep than fully licensed to fly drones! Rural drone businesses can be created part-time and run with flexible hours, with relatively little capital and built up slowly, using agricultural and rural knowledge along with local contacts. Perfect for rural women who are also the primary caregivers for children!

The drone industry desperately needs more female role models. There are so few women flying commercially at present that every single one stands out as an example for others to potentially follow.

Q: What advice can you give to a young professional who is looking to start a career in this business?

Play to your natural strengths and think long-term.

Agricultural youth awards can come with fantastic training, travel, public speaking, networking and leadership opportunities. But if you choose this route, ensure you stay humble and mentor others; and not just “people like you” – a diverse range. I’ve seen many dismayed that accolades don’t last longer than 12 months or so, and struggle to recover when the “honeymoon” wears off. Burnout isn’t uncommon. Building up slowly creates more resilience from the inevitable knocks.

Dedicate yourself to an industry field for years and your tenacity and experience will attract respect.
If you don’t care deeply about what you do, you’ll fall at the first or second hurdle.

Q: What can businesses do to increase diversity and attract female talent?

My favourite quote from last year: “If everyone around the table looks like you, you have a problem.”

So first up, businesses need to look closely at their employment track record. Has bias been exhibited already? Are most employees or members called Peter or Michael? Research has shown that diversity of gender, age and background leads to greater productivity, so there’s sound economic reasons for improvement.

It is generally true that men will apply for jobs despite having large gaps in the requested skills while women won’t apply unless they feel they tick every single box. In the publishing industry, most male authors will submit manuscripts repeatedly to publishers—whereas women are more likely to be put off for good, after just a few rejections. These things apply to women in agriculture, e.g. in relation to employment, running for leadership positions, and speaking at conferences. And women tend to take critical comments regarding their performance to heart whereas fewer men do.

So, for best “results,” feedback needs to be handled thoughtfully and delivered in a way that fits each individual rather than taking a “one way for all” approach. If businesses want women to apply, go and headhunt them, rather than just waiting for them to apply. The very best candidates may not, simply because they’ve been too self-critical.

When advertising, businesses should make it clear that women are welcome to apply. And that training is available to fill skill gaps for the right applicant. To keep women, they must feel welcome—by the workplace, other staff and management. Critical mass is required. If they’re the only woman amongst a group, it feels very much like being the token, and odd.

Modest quotas may be essential in order to reach critical mass. And unless there’s almost no women at all in a field, quotas do not “elevate incapable or unqualified women” (as some unfortunately suggest).
Instead, quotas just remove the bottom rung of male applicants—who, on too many occasions, have only been considered above the best female applicants because of their gender.

Q: You are supporting the WFA campaign, can you tell what this initiative means to you and why is it important?
A lack of diversity means less productivity, creativity and sustainability.

There are campaigns running in several countries to promote the vision of women in agriculture and thus raise respect. Unfortunately, they’re all accidentally helping to foster the stereotype as real farmers meaning working outdoors, driving a tractor or working with livestock, when in reality, the reason why women don’t feature in images is because mostly their roles are indoor and thus, less photogenic.
‘Female farmer’ campaigns are just fostering the stereotype that farming means outside with dirty hands, instead of raising respect for the farm business roles that so many women undertake—administration and communication, financial management, employee care, catering, workplace health and safety management, etc.

So, I’m delighted to support a programme that shines a light on the complete diversity of agriculture-related roles that women are involved in. Every farm-related task is a worthy one and deserving of respect and acknowledgement—not just the photogenic.


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