This month we were visited by Timothy Njakasi, an old friend from Uganda. After reading our co-owners’ annual report, he accosted me: “Guy, I must ask you; where are the women in power? All your trustees, 80 per cent of the Co-owner Council, and five out of seven directors are men.”
This observation had not escaped me; indeed, it has been a growing frustration that despite our efforts, we have made little progress in redressing the gender balance. Very few women stood for the Co-owner Council, there remains a reluctance for women to step up to supervisory roles, and the ‘best’ candidates for senior positions are too often male.
So how did Timothy get to be such an expert? The first time I visited his farm east of Kampala, there wasn’t much gender equality to be seen; the women did almost all the work, while the men did most of the talking and drinking.
That was 20 years ago; since then, Timothy has worked with the charity Send a Cow, enabling disadvantaged families to farm their way out of poverty. Addressing ‘gender issues’ in the families precedes any agricultural training; indeed, it would not be an overstatement to say that development cannot happen without it.
If I hadn’t seen for myself the men and women both embracing a fairer and more productive division of tasks, I would not believe that such rapid cultural change was possible.
On the journey to employee ownership, we invested hugely in developing a more inclusive, power-sharing culture. We must apply the same stubborn persistence to empowering women.
In the past, we haven’t been sympathetic enough; now, we are introducing flexible working wherever we can, and shifts with reliable finish times elsewhere – critical for those with child-care or other responsibilities. Our gender pay gap is much better than average, but still needs work, so we have set up a remuneration committee (including three members of the Co-owner Council).
But the most important thing we can do is to counter unconscious bias by having more women in power. Our new board chair is a woman, and for our other two recent director vacancies we searched hard, if unsuccessfully, for women.
Equality of opportunity is an asset as much as a right; diversity brings innovation, flexibility and joy. Our co-owners will only truly thrive when conditions, job descriptions, selection, and the definitions of success are dictated as much by women as men. If Timothy can do it in a remote Ugandan village, we can do it at Riverford.