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When it comes to women in leadership roles within the food and agriculture sector, we’ve made a great deal of progress — but there is always more to be done

Deborah Borg is Executive Vice President and Chief HR and Communications Officer at Bunge. She took some time to chat with us about her perspective on the issues impacting women working in the industry. Bunge is a world leader in sourcing, processing and supplying oilseed and grain products and ingredients.

Q: Our research highlights that investing in women is becoming more important for businesses in the food and agriculture sector and the importance of promoting the sector to the younger generation. What has been your experience in developing and encouraging female employees to pursue leadership roles and what advice would you have for organizations to help them foster growth and diversity?

When it comes to women in leadership roles within the food and agriculture sector, we’ve made a great deal of progress — but there is always more to be done.

For me, the opportunity to advise and mentor women as they grow into the next generation of industry leaders has been a source of enormous professional satisfaction. Young women are incredibly excited to create a career path in this industry and are coming to the table with invaluable insight and capability.

As an industry, I think the key to success lies in reminding of the big purpose that we have in feeding the world, having diverse sourcing channels, ensuring a robust entry level hiring strategy with equal gender representation, raising awareness of the vast career opportunities within the industry and cultivating a workplace that emphasizes equality.    And I think there is also success in having a larger voice and driving partnerships to amplify that voice.  To this end, I am proud of the Together We Grow Initiative, a partnership we have with industry peers, academia, NGO’s and legislative bodies that is working to grow the pipeline of diverse talent within the industry.

Q: A big part of your job is talent acquisition. What traits do you look for when sourcing leaders in this industry?

Every individual has a unique set of traits that makes them a successful leader. But the first quality I look for in a candidate is their fit to the company’s culture, and the passion they have for their career. You want someone who is excited by what they do and who can instill that enthusiasm in others. It’s also important that a candidate is adept at navigating a rapidly changing industry like our own; whether that be in a cultural, economic, or technological sense.

Q: What are the top challenges you see for those looking to make a career in this business? Do you think that there are challenges specific to women working in what many consider to be a male-dominated agriculture industry?

I would say the greatest challenge lies in certain misconceptions about the agriculture industry. In part that relates to the idea that this business is dominated by men, but equally challenging is that many people outside the industry don’t fully realize the breadth and scope of what we do and the career opportunities that exist within the industry. Of course, farming is the cornerstone of this industry, but there are a multitude of career paths like finance, engineering, innovation, research, risk management, marketing, HR, digital technologies, IT, communications or investor relations that are all essentially to the business.  Helping the public better understand what it is we do, and how people from across a wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences contribute, is an important priority across the sector that can be resolved with better communication and visibility.

At Bunge we are proud to see how more women are joining the industry in recent years. As an example, through our Young Engineers Program (YEP) we recruit recent graduates who are seeking a career within Bunge’s industrial operations and we have seen the increase of women participation in the program year over year. In the past 10 years, our female YEP graduates have tripled and in the last YEP edition women accounted for 70% of the total participants. Our goal is to continue increasing the presence of women in the different roles and functions as well as career and development opportunities with us.

Q: Our research shows that at boardroom level there is an under representation of women on company boards. In your view, are policies focused on improving the gender balance at leadership level too limiting? How can we ensure that they open doors to broader workplace diversity?

Under representation of women on company boards remains a problem across all industry sectors – an area that I hope every organization, in every industry continues to address. While it is true change has been slow, the needle does seem to be trending in the right direction. Given board members are typically sourced from leaders with operational and finance backgrounds, I think our policies need to be focused on improving gender balance at leadership levels in these kind of positions.  In order to achieve this goal, we need to be honest about the landscape we currently work in, correct biases both unconscious and otherwise through education of employees, and always strive to assure that the avenues to succeed in business are of equal advantage to all.  I am proud to say that we have had a strong focus on this at Bunge and three of our nine non-executive directors are female.

Q: Research shows that economic gender parity could add substantial value to the GDP of the United States, United Kingdom, and China. How can companies operating with the food and ag industry do their part to close the pay gap and attract more female talent?

There’s no question that equality in pay and opportunity is to everyone’s advantage. From an industry perspective, it helps assure that we attract top talent who can provide the fresh perspectives and insights that will assure our future success. I think it’s vital that dialogue about the wage gap continues, but we also need to work proactively to assure the issue remains top-of-mind for decision makers across every sector to affect change.

As to attracting female talent, it goes back to the need for our industry to communicate the growing diversity within the field, as well as highlight the depth and reach of what it means to work in the agriculture business: from farming and commodities trading, to technological and scientific innovations, there are so many inspiring paths to success for young women in this industry.

Q:  From an HR perspective, how can we improve workplace culture for better employee retention?

The most important thing we can do is ensure a workplace that provides the optimal conditions for open communication, assuring that people feel comfortable expressing their ideas and beliefs at work.  It also should be emphasized that this means a lot more than just passive listening; we need to carefully consider employee feedback and proactively find ways that will optimize our corporate culture to assure it is a place where all employees are seen and heard.

 Q: What are some ways to promote inclusivity and combat unconscious bias in the workplace and in the industry?

Bringing awareness to the unconscious is key which is achieved by education and communication.  We embed unconscious bias training in our leadership development, and actively promote promoting content and channels to share the voices and perspective of employees from different backgrounds.  .

Q: Where do you think opportunities exist for women seeking a career in food and agriculture today?

Today is an extremely exciting time for women in the agricultural sector. There is such a diverse field of specialties and careers in this business that allow women to excel in whatever their passions might be.  The Food and Agriculture sector has opportunities in more female dominant fields like HR and communications, but also in areas like research, innovation, sustainability, commercial and engineering.  The possibilities for women to create a meaningful career path in food and agriculture are truly endless, and the future looks bright.

Q: Lastly, you are sponsoring the upcoming WFA summit, what does this initiative mean to you and why do you think it’s timely and important?

Bunge is very proud to be a sponsor of the Women in Food and Agriculture summit. It is an incredible opportunity to learn from and network with women from across the supply chain. It also provides an invaluable forum that brings together some of the best minds in the industry to discuss the opportunities and challenges we face both from the perspective of gender and the industry as a whole.

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