Women in agriculture - leadership programme development: research

This report outlines the main findings of research conducted to inform the development of a leadership programme for women in agriculture, which will be funded by Scottish Government through the Women in Agriculture Development Programme.

4. Interview findings

During interviews, we found that women's routes to leadership can be varied, and unexpected; once in a leadership role, women can face challenges including a lack of confidence and difficulty gaining respect. Overall, participants valued collaborative ways of working and spoke about the importance of both formal and informal support in helping them to see themselves as capable of taking on a leadership role, for example on the board of an agricultural organisation.

4.1 Main interview findings

The main interview findings can be summarised as follows:

Paths to leadership

Most participants did not have a clear career plan, but have taken opportunities when they were offered or tried different roles. Whilst many had held ambitions to reach a leadership position, most had not expected to gain the specific roles they now have. Their motivations included being able to shape wider decision-making and in several cases, the future of the agricultural industry. Career development initiatives, including leadership programmes, can act as a stepping stone to board roles within agricultural organisations.

Approaches to leadership

Participants all felt that they had seen different styles of leadership, and most stated that this came down to personality type. The majority felt that women in leadership roles are more likely to take a collaborative approach. In line with this, participants described their own leadership styles as adaptable and collaborative, and emphasised the importance of taking others' views into account. Confidence and resilience, alongside an ability to listen and work collaboratively were highlighted as key skills for leadership.

Gaining a board role

Several participants have roles at board level within agricultural organisations. Most had doubts before taking on the role about whether they were the right person to do it, or had the right skills. In several cases this was described as 'imposter syndrome'. Several younger participants aim to gain board roles in the future, whilst participants further on in their careers spoke about issues recruiting board members, particularly women.

The agricultural industry

Participants had both positive and negative experiences as women working in the agricultural industry, or in other male-dominated contexts. Several described humour as a way of dealing with sexism, but most felt that persistent forms of gender bias have an impact on women working for agricultural organisations. Participants spoke about the importance of gaining respect as a woman in leadership, and having to prove yourself. Most were unsure about the role men could play in supporting women to reach leadership roles in agriculture, and many were critical of more direct forms of positive action.


Participants have received different kinds of support throughout their careers, including from family and friends. They also value the support they have received from other women and men in farming, and the boards of the organisations they sit on – 'people that recognise you as somebody that can do it'. Whilst most have had positive experiences, one participant felt that there is a lack of support for female employees in the agricultural industry in terms of training and skills development.

Leadership programmes

For participants who have taken part in leadership programmes, one of the most useful parts of the course was the chance to meet other people in a similar position and gain a support network. Others have valued the chance to improve their skills, gain experience at a more strategic level, refocus their goals or decide which career direction to focus on.

Designing a leadership programme for women in agriculture

Participants made a number of suggestions about what could be included as part of a leadership programme for women in agriculture, including: boardroom and meeting skills, an introduction to different leadership styles, business knowledge, mentoring and personal skills such as resilience and self-understanding. They felt that the programme should aim to develop women's confidence and encourage them to apply for board and leadership roles. They emphasised the importance of self-understanding, being willing to learn, and to practice things that are more challenging.

Participants suggested that the programme could include practical sessions, from site visits to other farms to learn about other parts of the industry, to negotiation role-playing, filling out applications forms in a more confident way or vocalising leadership goals.

Connecting women on the leadership programme

Participants spoke about the importance of creating a network of women on the leadership programme, and the value in finding informal mentors in the industry for advice and support. They highlighted coaching as an 'empowering' way of helping participants to work through problems and find the answers themselves.

Participants had a range of views about who the programme could be for, from women at a 'crossroads in their career' to those with the right skills but lacking in confidence. Several felt that women who have completed the Scottish Government's Women in Agriculture funded 'Be Your Best Self' course would be the right group to offer places on the leadership programme, as the next step in their personal development. They felt that women taking part should have a clear goal, and that the programme should be delivered to smaller groups of women (around 10-15) to enable them to build close relationships.

Participants thought that 'word of mouth' would be important in promoting the programme, alongside a clear explanation of its benefits for applicants. One further suggestion was that programme attendees should receive a certificate, to show they have been 'recognised as someone with potential' in the industry.

These findings are outlined in more detail in the following section.

4.2 Paths to leadership

Participants did not have clearly defined career plans and several did not have ambitions to reach a leadership role. They have encountered a range of different leadership styles, and many valued taking a more consensual approach.

Participants of different ages said that they did not have a clear career plan, and have instead taken opportunities when they were offered. They emphasised the value of gaining experience in different roles, and thinking about career progression in a less linear way. This reflects wider research, which suggests that women are less likely than men to have linear careers (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003). One participant, when asked how she had reached her current leadership role, said:

Accident really [...] none of my career has been thought-out. It's things that have come along and opportunities that I've grabbed because they were there.

She noted the importance of 'being open to things that come along', as detours can be 'fulfilling'. 'I like to feel like I'm moving forward, I don't really like to […] stand still', another participant stated. She felt that she is at a 'crossroads' in her career, with a choice of directions to progress into:

My career's kind of evolved organically, I don't think I actually set out with really firm aspirations […] It wasn't easy to get to the position that I'm in, I had to scrap to get there […] there aren't traditionally a lot of female role models in the industry.

When her current role became available, the company wanted to promote a male employee with less experience, and she had to 'make that case' for herself.

Leadership ambitions

Participants were asked if reaching a leadership role had always been an ambition of theirs. Whilst a number said it had been, this was not the case for everyone:

It definitely wasn't an ambition of mine to be honest […] it wasn't until the people started saying to me, you know, would you think about it.

'I can't say I wasn't interested in leadership, but it never occurred to me that I would want to pursue [this kind of role]', another said. She had thought the role 'would be boring', 'but having tried it, I discovered I liked it […] being able to offer opinions and shape how things go'. She took a wider perspective: 'every role has the possibility of being a leadership role.'

Several of the younger participants aspired to reach leadership positions in the future. 'I want to be at the table', one said, stating that she would love to be an 'example' to other women in her industry.

Approaches to leadership

Participants all felt that they had seen different styles of leadership, and most stated that this came down to personality type: whether 'you're a doer, [or] a thinker'.

There are as many different styles of leadership as there are people – everybody does it differently […] There are times where humour and light-hearted comments get the job done far better than saying this is what to do.

As one participant argued, different styles can be appropriate in different contexts:

Some people can naturally take people with them, some […] dictate more, some people work very much on consensus, and they all have their place […]

Participants were asked if they felt men and women differ in their approaches to leadership. Whilst some were unsure, the majority felt there are differences. For example, one felt they had seen women 'putting more detail and more time into things', whilst others felt women are more 'consensual' leaders:

I don't have that much experience of seeing other women in leadership roles […] but my general perception is that women are more likely to be collaborative, and try and be a bit softer and persuade and take people with them.

This emphasis on collaboration and personal relationships was reflected in how participants described their own leadership styles:

I do think women tend to have a more collaborative style of leadership, and try to get everybody's opinion. I certainly do, I don't lay down the law, ever. I like to hear what everybody's saying and then come to a consensus […]

Similarly, another participant stated that she prefers to 'ask questions', and to allow people to 'challenge [her] conclusions'. However, she did emphasise the value in adapting your leadership style for different situations and groups of people. Another described herself as 'people-oriented' but focused on action, once she knows everybody is on board: 'I'm very much a let's get going […] let's get it done'. As one participant noted, leadership itself has changed. Whereas previously, leaders were 'very directing', now it's 'more about getting the best from people, and being an enabler rather than dictating to them and leading from the front'.

Several participants contrasted their own approaches to leadership with those of other people, including men. For example, one stated that men can take an 'assertive' approach: 'this is what I think, and this is what we will do'. She talked about the difficulties of speaking up in certain settings, such as meetings:

There was two or three males who are quite forceful, and gave their opinion, and you could see that – not just the women round the table, but other men, were quite hesitant to contradict anything they said […] so many people just don't feel able to speak up against those sort of loud, assertive voices […] it's probably something that society has almost trained us against as women.

Similarly, another participant commented that she has been to 'quite a few meetings' at which the Chair or others were 'steering the decisions'. She found this frustrating, as it undermined the role of the committee in reaching a shared decision that she would then 'take forward'. Another described a similar experience:

I've been in meetings where I noticed […] a generational gap, with some men, where I might ask a question, and they won't hear it, but then when my male colleague will ask it, they'll answer the question.

In contrast, one participant in a leadership role said she finds men 'a lot easier to deal with': 'If they have an issue, they will just come and say it to you […] the direct way that men work suits me'.

Key leadership skills

Several participants highlighted an ability to listen and work collaboratively as key skills for leadership, whilst retaining your role as a leader:

You've got to be able to listen and take on board other people's ideas, but you've got to be confident enough within yourself that you can then make a decision.

Listening was key to several participants' decision-making process. As one stated, you should aim to properly 'hear what the other person is saying, what the problem is', so that you can respond in a way that addresses their concerns. Another participant described how after initial shyness, she now says it 'as it is':

You should take everybody's opinions on board and if people don't like mine, well tough […] that's how I feel really. It maybe makes me a little bit more resilient.

Similarly, another participant spoke about having the confidence to respond to questions she is unsure about, and to use the 'knowledge I do have': 'I'll say, I think it's this […] but I'll double check […] sometimes it's just blagging it.'

Handling difficult conversations

These leadership skills enabled participants to feel more confident when dealing with challenges. As one stated, this is a part of the role that she enjoys:

There are always people who disagree […] and usually [...] I would prefer to have the discussion […] to talk about what the concerns are and to reach a consensus […] That's not to say there aren't times that I will [...] say no, we're doing it this way, but when I do that I'm confident that I've listened to all the arguments against it and at that point I'm making a decision because that's what I'm paid to do.

In addition, she described experiencing 'personal challenges around confidence and abilities', but said these could be addressed with the right 'attitude'. Several participants felt that confidence and resilience are key to being an effective leader:

I think it comes down to being confident and knowing yourself, and what you can handle […] everything can't always go to plan […] it's a matter of being that person that can stand up and say, that was a mistake that was made, it won't happen again […] and dealing with everything that comes with the role. Having those difficult conversations and not just sweeping things under the carpet.

Another felt that women can be less resilient, and their confidence is 'easier to dent'. It's important they are able to 'separate' the two, and not take criticism of their decisions as leaders 'personally'. In terms of dealing with people, as one said:

To start with I found it quite intimidating, because I wasn't [very confident]. The irony is, that […] if someone had been on the farm buying a sheep […] I would have been quite happy doing that deal, that's not a problem. But anything out-with that […] and I thought oh, I don't like doing this, but […] I do it no problem now.

4.3 Board roles

Several participants sit on the boards of agricultural organisations. Two gained their current roles after taking part in personal development programmes.

One stated that she applied for a role on the board with no 'expectation of getting anywhere with it'. Another applied for the chair's job as a 'practice run' and was surprised to get it. Previously, she hadn't 'done anything at that sort of level', but was able to build on her experience of local committees. Her role involves chairing board meetings throughout the year, working with senior management to decide strategy, and acting as a 'bridge' both between the board and the executive team, and between farmers and the organisation, for example by speaking to the media or at NFUS meetings. Another participant had been a committee member for several years before she was asked if she would like to stand as chair:

I said I would […] one of those things, you don't say no […] the members of the committee who wanted me to stand and proposed me […] they did have to work on me for a wee while, to convince me to do it – just because of the time element attached to it […] it wasn't really a plan that I'd ever had.

Both participants had doubts before taking on these roles, and several referred to 'imposter syndrome'. 'I think women are more prone to it', as one stated:

I thought you know – am I really gonna be […] the right person to do this. Because I don't consider myself to be a very polished professional type of person […] I am just a farmer […] is anyone actually gonna take me seriously when I walk into meetings […] I think the advantage of just being a farmer and being very forward speaking, you know […] they just get it as it is.

One participant had doubts because of her background:

I did have doubts before I took on this role if I was even the right person to do it […] I didn't have that agriculture background or that knowledge, but I was kind of told that look […] you don't have to know everything - it is working with these people and knowing the right person to put forward for each thing.

This reflects wider research, which has highlighted the barriers that men and women from non-farming backgrounds face within agricultural organisations (see Chapter 1). However, this participant emphasised that she has had 'positive' experiences speaking to members and other people in the role. She has 'picked things up along the way', and being on the board has given her the chance to develop her leadership skills: 'I will put as much into it as I can'.

Other participants were aiming to gain a board role in the future. One participant, who has applied for voluntary roles in the charity sector, said: 'I'm not put off by the fact I've […] not been successful because I know that I'll get there in the end'.

Recruiting women onto boards

Several participants spoke about wider issues recruiting board members, particularly women. One had recently been involved in a board recruitment process. All of the roles had been given to men, as the organisation received a low number of applications from women despite holding online information events: 'if you don't get the women applying in the first place, how can you pick them?'

Another participant who has been involved in interviewing people for board posts suggested that 'the biggest problem with women is lacking confidence':

There are lots of women out there who could do a fantastic job, but don't put themselves forwards [...] it's been quite difficult to recruit the number of women that we would like to [...] I would love to encourage women generally of all ages and stages in their careers to apply.

To some extent, participants have been able to shape their board roles. For example, one has led changes to improve attendance at meetings. She hopes this will 'have a positive impact', and make it 'easier for anybody who comes after'.

4.4 Male-dominated sectors

Participants were asked about their experiences as women working in the agricultural industry and other sectors, from attending meetings to taking on board or leadership roles. This has involved working in male-dominated contexts.

Those who sit on the boards of agricultural organisations had largely had positive experiences, with one participant describing her committee as 'inclusive and encouraging'. However, whilst noting that she has not had 'any sort of issues' during meetings, one stated:

There's one or two times when we were staying overnight or something, and you ended up as the last woman in the bar with a group of men, and […] it felt slightly uncomfortable […] you just thought, oh right okay, is this how you speak when all the women have gone.

Experiences of sexism

Other participants shared this view, and had experienced sexist behaviour in different environments. In describing the 'underlying sexism' she has experienced in the industry, one said: 'it's not malicious, it's often quite unintended, but it's quite corrosive.' Gender stereotyping still takes place, as this quote indicates:

There is a perception that oh, she's female […] she's going to go off on maternity leave […] I've heard that articulated in a boardroom situation […]

I feel like there's still a bit of a perception about women and what they should be doing […] I think that then translates for women in industry like myself. I'm dealing with men who think that women should have a very traditional role […] that can be a bit of a barrier as well.

Similarly, another participant commented: 'It's often thoughtlessness, so they just don't think that women really want to be involved'. She added:

I was on a meeting yesterday, and they were talking about farmers, and it was 'when you go onto his farm, or when he does this', and it's just the default is always 'he', and people don't realise they're doing it and they don't do it on purpose, but it's still there - that assumption that farmers are men.

Some participants felt that this type of gender bias has led to a lack of flexible working options, and a poor work life balance in the industry. There was a shared perception that this can be a 'barrier' for women in various roles, including those in leadership. In terms of dealing with the types of situations described above, several participants described humour as a strategy for coping with sexism:

I've always been sort of the token woman. I'm usually the only woman that sits at the table on a Monday morning at the market for a coffee, I'm usually the only woman that's at our branch NFU meetings […] it doesn't really bother me, and I think I've sort of been indoctrinated into the male mindset at times […] they forget that I'm there […] and they will maybe come out with the odd sexist remark […] and I'll just laugh […] in some ways it is a part of life, but there is a line.

Gaining respect

For women in male-dominated sectors, another barrier can be their perceived lack of experience. Several participants spoke about the importance of gaining respect as a woman in a leadership role, and having to prove yourself:

I think throughout society, but particularly in agriculture […] if you go into any position as a man, it's assumed that you can do it until you prove otherwise, and I think when you go in as a woman, it's assumed that you probably can't do it, until you prove otherwise […] In agriculture, you've got to be respected […] but that isn't immediate, you've got to develop that.

The majority also spoke about the need to speak confidently, and to 'prove to the people that you're in a room with [...] that you know what you're talking about'. As this participant added, 'then the mutual respect does tend to appear'.

4.5 Support

During interviews, participants were asked about what kinds of support they have received throughout their career. They spoke about support from their partners, family, and the different kinds of choices that women have to make, particularly in terms of having children and then returning to focus on their careers:

Probably more for women than men, your partner makes a huge difference […] also, I couldn't have […] done this whole process ten years earlier, because of what age my kids were [...] no matter how much support I had.

As another stated, things are changing, and whilst 'there are sacrifices to be made', 'it's not either or, it's [about] how you develop to get to where you want to be'. For example, several participants felt that women who do have children may reach a leadership position at a later stage. Others had been able to take on their current roles due to family members picking up additional work on their farm.

Participants also valued the support they receive from other women and men in farming, and the boards of the organisations they sit on:

I think the support of your peers makes a huge difference, so other farmers [...] I occasionally get a message saying you're doing a really good job […] it makes such a huge difference […] people that recognise you as somebody that can do it.

Participants across different sectors felt well supported by the organisations they work for, in addition to other groups such as their local NFUS branch: women should aim to 'take support from wherever you can get it'. However, one participant felt she had not received a lot of support working in the agricultural industry:

I feel like the direction that I've gone in, and the things that I've done, actually have come from me, and me driving it […] I can't really say that I've had a lot of support […] there's not really a culture of upskilling and improvement [in the industry].

Lastly, one participant highlighted that having a board role also involves supporting others. In some cases, this includes people facing significant challenges. She has gone on a mental health first aid course to improve her skills, and thinks others should do this, because 'it is a really isolating industry'. This participant talked about the need to set boundaries, and the challenge of managing both her 'business at home and the role': 'It's taken up a lot more time that I thought it would'.

Financial support

Several participants mentioned training budgets as a form of financial support for women. One said that the organisation she works for has a small training budget, and whilst this is starting to change, she had previously felt that there 'wouldn't be that money available'. In contrast, others felt their organisations had provided a range of training and skills development opportunities, including budget for attending events and courses, or helped them progress through voluntary roles.

Another participant highlighted the Scottish Government's Women in Agriculture programme as an important source of support, both as a network and because of the availability of funding toward training courses, a form of 'tangible support'. This participant felt that financial barriers were an important factor in women's career development. She had recently completed training, and said that whilst the cost was fairly low in comparison with other types of courses, it takes a certain amount of confidence for a woman in the industry to invest money in themselves.

The role that men can play

Participants were also asked about the role they felt that men could play in supporting more women to reach leadership roles in agriculture. They felt this was important, but would take time. One said there is 'work to be done on both sides'.

Whilst participants spoke about the role men could play in being 'open to change', and building women's confidence, most were critical of more direct forms of positive action such as targets on boards. As one stated, women need to 'do the work themselves, not rely on others'. This reflects wider research in other sectors (Williams et al, 2014). As their comments show, this is a complex issue:

I think men need to be open to change and to recognise that women might not do things in exactly the same way, but that doesn't mean it's not as good [...] I'm not a great fan of saying there must be 50% women or there are targets […] I think we all want to be appointed because we're the right person for that role at that time, but men need to give us the opportunity to demonstrate that and to get the experience.

One participant was aware that some members of her organisation held the view that she may have been given her role due to being a woman:

I think we will get to a place eventually where it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman and nobody will take any notice of it, but to get there is going to take a bit of effort […] you'll see conversations […] about quotas on boards and things like that, and as a woman on a board, you do sometimes think, have I just been put on to tick that box […] that all undermines you […] nobody ever says that about a man.

As she added, it needs to be 'normal' to see women doing that role. This reflects wider research, in which participants held mixed views on the role of positive action in supporting women in agricultural leadership, due to potential uncertainty as to whether they have been appointed due to their gender (see Chapter 1).

4.6 Career development

Leadership programmes

Several participants had taken part in leadership programmes run by agricultural or rural organisations. For many, these programmes were key to building their confidence, developingtheir support network and gaining leadership roles:

I thought, oh I'll just apply, not thinking that I would ever be chosen […] the delivery sessions [were] a mixture of everything, from personal development to media training, [to] technical farm information […] the idea was that we would be more used to the [sector], and better prepared to run our own businesses, and I was then asked to join the [committee] and then it just went from there really.

One participant had recently been involved in setting up a new programme for members of her organisation. This included sessions on leadership and communication skills, encouraging attendees to think about what they 'wanted to get out of [their] year', and to put a plan together. Another had completed a programme which included leadership sessions and one-to-one support.

For several participants, one of the most useful parts of the programmes they have done was the chance to meet others and gain a support network. One participant has stayed in touch with her group, and they continue to support each other. For another participant, meeting a group of people from 'different areas' who also 'felt passionate about the industry' has contributed to her 'personal development', and led to 'lasting relationships'. This improved her confidence: 'knowing that there were other people out there who felt the same way that I did, and that were willing to say what they wanted from the industry as well.'

One participant is completing a career development programme in her sector that aims to address issues in getting employees, particularly women, into mid-level management roles. She has a mentor and yearly objectives, and keeps a record of the skills she gains on placements. She likes that the programme is 'self-led', and sees it as an 'investment' in herself, but also appreciates being able to understand the decisions taken in her industry at a more 'strategic level'.

For participants further on in their careers, other courses have helped them to refine their leadership approach in other ways. For example, one had attended a training course on authentic leadership:

I don't mind getting it wrong, as long as I know that I've thought through what I'm doing […] for me that's what authenticity is about. Don't ask somebody else to do something that you don't believe in or you don't think is right.

4.7 Designing a leadership programme

Participants felt that a leadership programme for women in agriculture should include practical sessions on boardroom and meeting skills, in addition to focusing on personal skills such as confidence, resilience and self-understanding.

Participants were asked for their views on what could be included in a leadership programme for women in agriculture, taking into account their experiences as women in leadership roles and their participation on programmes like this.

They made a range of suggestions, from practical knowledge such as boardroom and meeting skills, to leadership approaches, mentoring and workshops on personal skills such as confidence, resilience and self-understanding.

Confidence, public speaking and boardroom skills

Many participants felt that it would be useful if the programme equipped women with practical skills, to develop their confidence and encourage them to apply for board roles, for example 'how to run meetings', and 'make sure your voice is heard'. The programme could also include practical guidance on specific activities such as media training, public speaking or job applications:

I've never had any practical training in running meetings or boardroom skills […] and it's something that it's taken me a long time to pick up […] they'll always improve and develop […] but to have the baseline skills I think is vitally important, because it will engender confidence as much as anything else.

As one participant put it, this could range from 'chairing a good meeting', or 'how to articulate yourself in a confident and constructive way' to a practical understanding of boards, the role of a director and trustees, how businesses work, and so on:

I don't think there are many agricultural organisations that actually equip their leaders with the formal skills and understandings in a lot of the basics.

One younger participant said she would be attracted to a programme that aimed to build herconfidence, for example when she is the 'only woman in a room': 'how you carry yourself, what body language you use'.

In reference to the difficulties of recruiting women onto agricultural boards, one participant suggested that the programme could provide help with applications, and encourage women to feel more confident about their ability to meet the criteria. Several felt that women could be more confident when applying for jobs, for example in setting out their achievements.

One participant felt that preparation for taking on a board role could be useful, as she had felt unclear about what would be expected of her, and would have appreciated 'more transparency' about what the organisation expected. The programme could help women who want to apply for a board role to find out about what it involves. As she noted, hers is a voluntary role with no contracted hours, and whilst some chairs 'throw themselves in', others can't put as much time into it:

I find that quite difficult, that there's no actual set parameters as to what is expected from you, and I think that maybe puts other people off […] if there was defined parameters, it would probably be easier […] [to] encourage people.

Business and negotiation skills, and handling difficult conversations

As discussed above, many participants spoke about the importance of being able to handle more difficult conversations in a leadership role. Several had taken part in role-play sessions during training courses and found this helpful. In one session attended by a participant, an actor had played the role of a relative who didn't want to make changes on the farm, so attendees could practice negotiating with them:

That really helped as well, so putting yourself in that situation and being forced to come up with things, and then, what he did after the five minutes was, right […] go back, what should [participant] have said at that point, what would have been the way to de-escalate that confrontation […] that was really good.

Several participants felt that business skills would be a useful part of the programme, including accountancy, record-keeping and time-management. As one stated, 'farming is a business', and you need to be able to plan the business and 'file your taxes'. One participant had learnt time-management skills on a course she attended which she still uses now. Attendees learnt how to manage their time and run the business more efficiently, for example the increasing amount of paperwork. This skill applies to both farm work and taking on a board role, she added, including learning how to 'plan and prioritise'.

Personal skills and self-awareness

Participants also felt that the programme should focus on the personal skills needed to take on a leadership role. They emphasised the importance of 'understanding yourself', and your strengths and weaknesses, in order to think about how to 'fit them into a leadership style'.

I think it comes down to knowing yourself […] and what you're capable of and what you can or can't do […] know what you can do well, and use it to your advantage […] I definitely in the past year or two have learnt a lot about myself.

As a range of wider research shows, leadership is shaped by different aspects of people's identity. A leadership programme for women in agriculture should give participants an opportunity to explore this, as part of wider self-reflection.

Being willing to learn

Building on the comments above, participants spoke about the importance of being willing to learn and gain experience over time:

You don't have to be an expert in everything […] if you're willing to learn, and speak to somebody who's in a completely different scenario from you, [and say] I don't know much about this, can you tell me what it's like to be a dairy farmer […] that's a way of connecting with people […] and having the confidence to do that, because it's not an easy thing to do, admitting you don't know something.

Another part of building confidence in your abilities, as several participants said, is a willingness to make mistakes, and to see this as an 'opportunity to learn':

I think every time you take on a new role, you learn something new […] you can always look back and say, ah, my leadership skills weren't up to scratch there, I should have done this. But it's all in-part learning.

As this participant added, if you're less confident about something like public speaking, a course can only help so much - you also need to practise to improve.

Leadership approaches

Participants also felt that the programme should look at different approaches to leadership. One suggested that 'a conversation around leadership style' would be helpful, as 'a lot of people haven't thought about it, and they just go intuitively':

What is leadership, and an understanding of leadership styles, and how different things are appropriate in different situations – and sometimes you might have to be dictatorial and say no, I'm really sorry, I've heard everything you've said, but actually this is the reason that we need to go down this route.

One participant had been on a course which covered 'different styles of leadership', to 'work out what style you were', 'what sort of personality you were, and how that interacted with other people's personalities […] that was all really useful'. Similarly, another said that completing a personality test during a leadership course helped her to think about what kind of leader she is, and how to work with others.

Leadership goals

One participant described the leadership programme she had been on as 'life-changing'. The programme included one-to-one coaching, during which participants had to explore what they wanted and the barriers they faced. In the final session, participants were asked to stand up and share their goal with the group. The group have supported each other since this, encouraging each other to keep aiming for those goals. For this participant, vocalising her leadership goals had an impact:

When it's in your head, you just don't know if you can do it, but actually saying it out-loud […] this is what I'm going to do […] it definitely made a difference.

Mentoring, coaching and support networks

Participants spoke about the importance of networking, both between attendees on the programme and more widely. One spoke about the importance of 'creating a community' amongst course attendees, so that 'they can speak to each other', and share knowledge. Another said:

I think networking […] is so important, because the more people that know you, and know what you can do, the more respect you'll gain […] Academic things, like learning your leadership style […] are all brilliant and very necessary, but I think for me the networking and the connections and the mentoring would be the biggest part of what a programme should contain.

Participants had all had positive experiences of mentoring, both informally and through more formal arrangements. Their mentors have helped them to build their networks, provided career advice and reassurance. Several participants spoke about the importance of finding someone you can trust:

When I got this job I did ask […] somebody else in the industry in a leadership position if she would kind of help mentor me, and she has […] it's more like friends having a chat every two months […] It doesn't feel like it's anything structured, but it has helped. [It's important] that it is somebody that knows the industry and knows the people you're talking about, but that you can totally trust.

Another participant said it can be helpful to have 'somebody working in a different area' to talk things through with. One participant who doesn't have an informal mentor said she would find it useful to speak to someone in a similar role. However, she did feel that she has been mentored by members of the organisation where she now holds a board role:

They obviously thought [it was] worth giving me that opportunity, and they [have] encouraged me ever since […] it was them that said we think you should consider [it] […] I find it quite humbling in a way, that people have that sort of confidence in you, that they think you can do these roles, and that you can represent the sector.

Another said that she was lucky to have had help and support from people 'in front' of her, and 'different mentors along the way'. It is 'brilliant', she added, to speak to someone who has 'been through what you're doing':

It's easy for you to see something one way, and all it takes is a conversation with the right person, to say […] hold on, you need to see it from this side of things […] It's somebody to sit down with you and say, right, what is your plan for the future.

One participant has a mentor as part of a training programme she is on, which she has found useful. Her mentor helps if she is 'struggling with motivation', reassures her that she is 'doing the right thing', and has offered career advice. As another participant suggested, whilst women may not find the right mentor straight away, a leadership programme could match them with potential mentors who 'fit' their goals.

For example, one participant had recently been involved in setting up a mentoring programme within her organisation. They asked past and current members to volunteer, and attend training sessions on 'how to be a mentor'. Those taking part in the programme are approaching it differently, she noted, with some meeting their mentor regularly, others less often or when they have something to discuss.

Whilst most participants felt that mentoring would be a valuable part of a leadership programme, one felt that a coaching approach would be helpful, as it encourages you to find the answers yourself, which is 'empowering'. In contrast, mentoring can be 'quite rigid':

'This is how I've done it', and it can be a bit difficult if you go away and you think, well that's what they've done in their organisation, but that wouldn't work in mine.

Another participant had been coached by a colleague, and found it to be a helpful way of thinking through 'specific problems' she was having at the time, and to think about things 'in a different way'. 'It's about making it something that's useful for you', she added. The arrangement should be 'flexible', 'so that both sides can pick up the phone and say, I think it would be a good idea to have a meeting'.

One participant felt that a coaching session at the start of a leadership programme would be a helpful way of choosing women to take part, as it would help them explore what they 'would like to get out of [the] course', whether it is the 'right time' for them to be doing it, and what their 'end goal' is. One coaching session won't be a 'lightbulb for everyone', she added, but 'whilst it's not given me the answers it's made me go forward and it's given me options'.

Site visits and placements

Several participants felt that site-visits to other farms could be a beneficial part of the programme, as a way of helping participants to share practical skills, learn about new technologies or agri-environmental activities, or discuss how to improve their work life balance. For example, one participant commented that it is beneficial to see how other farms, and 'the rest of the industry works'.

Placements were also discussed. Whilst one participant thought that placements were a 'good idea', she felt that this might be difficult in terms of the time commitment and participants' working hours, and that speaking to a mentor may be just as useful. One participant in another sector has done a number of placements as part of a training programme she is on. Her mentor has arranged placements for her, to gain experience or skills in specific areas such as health and safety. Other companies are 'receptive', she said: 'they see the benefit of engaging with a government body and strengthening their relationships.' This can involve arrangements to host other organisations' trainees. She will work on a specific project during each placement, and they can vary in length.

Smaller groups

Several participants felt that the leadership programme should be delivered to smaller groups of around 10-15 women, to develop a 'cohort approach'. This was based on their own experiences of taking part in similar programmes.

For example, one participant felt that it was the 'smaller groups' on a leadership course she had done who 'really bonded'. She felt it was important to 'meet in person', and that doing a course over several days had enabled them to get to know each other and build their relationships. As another participant put it, these programmes are about throwing participants 'in a room with each other', and encouraging them to 'get on with it'. As a third suggested, these smaller groups could then be widened out to create a 'leadership network', which could have a positive impact in future within the agricultural industry.

Who is the programme for

Participants had a range of views about who the programme could be for, from women at a 'crossroads in their career' to those with the right skills but lacking in confidence, or those who feel 'stuck' or frustrated in their current roles:

These women who will be very capable, who will be very intelligent […] whether they're running the business themselves or whether they're part of a partnership […] the ones who would never have the confidence to come forward on their own, because I was one of those people – and I think I'm doing a good enough job […] and there's bound to be other women out there who are exactly the same.

In terms of timing, many participants had reached leadership positions after taking part in career development programmes or leadership courses. Their experiences suggest that development programmes can a stepping stone to leadership roles. As one participant stated however, courses can benefit people at various points in their careers, as 'you get different things out of it at different stages'.

Several felt that women who have completed the Women in Agriculture programme funded 'Be Your Best Self' course would be the right group to be offered a place on a leadership programme, as the next step in their development. Some of the women interviewed as part of the 'Be Your Best Self' training pilot evaluation were interested in applying for a leadership programme to gain further practical skills and develop their careers. When asked what they felt they would gain from a leadership course, their answers included: confidence in expressing their views, dealing with difficult conversations and staff management.

In terms of advertising a programme, participants felt that 'word of mouth' is important, and seeing its impact on other women. 'It's about pitching it right, and the benefits, and what it can get you', one participant said:

If you're developing a new programme, if there's something exciting and new that the agricultural industry's into that – if you join this programme, we'll give you exposure to be part of this exciting project.

Finally, one participant felt that programme attendees should receive a certificate stating they have completed the course, and that this would help them apply for positions including board roles:

You've had to apply for it, you've been accepted, so you've been recognised as someone with potential, and you've shown that you're serious about developing yourself.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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