Friday, April 12, 2024

Primary sector women blazing a trail

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International Women’s Day celebrates social, economic, cultural and political achievements.
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Around the boardroom table of some of New Zealand’s biggest primary sector businesses are influential women blazing a trail for future generations. 

Marked annually on March 8, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. With the theme this year of Inspire Inclusion, it aims to forge a more inclusive world.

The first woman to head a major NZ agri-business co-operative, Jessie Chan, said NZ needs strong leaders in the primary sector now more than ever before. 

“Women need to build the confidence to say to ourselves, ‘I belong here,’ and hold our own at the leadership table.” 

Chan is quite deliberate in what she takes on, always looking to ensure her governance roles inter-connect in a way that serves the community and wider industry, while also striving to inspire others to take up leadership roles and achieve their goals.

She said women don’t need to be represented as movers and shakers. 

“We just need to be respected equally for our work and contribution to the sector. 

“We must also remember that respect must still be earned, regardless of gender. 

“There is a fine line as a woman in leadership between holding your own and practicing humility and respect for others.  

“There are less challenges than there used to be, but we are still not quite there.

“I still occasionally come across old-school men that secretly, or not so secretly, think I shouldn’t be there, but I see them as the minority and remind myself that the rest of us will move on without them.

“If we flip it around, it is actually less of a challenge and more of an opportunity.” 

The other challenge is being able to make space among other roles as mum, organiser, farm manager, school volunteer and the list goes on. 

“I see so many talented women that could contribute further in the leadership space, but they are giving so much to their families and communities that it is almost impossible. 

“The inspiration part starts with our rangatahi. As mothers, aunties, grandmothers, we should be teaching our young people the concept of equality, not only in gender but in all areas, and living it by example. 

“Influencing the next generation is where we will see real change. Women in leadership won’t be a big deal, it will just be normal, and we are getting there. 

“It has been fabulous to see women appointed in recent times to chair some of our key primary sector organisations, such as Silver Fern Farms and Beef + Lamb NZ.”

Chan attributes much of her success to her humble beginnings, learning her leadership skills from her sawmiller father who raised her and her three siblings after her mother left when she was 10 years old.

“He didn’t lead any organisation, but he was a really humble man and he led people. He was really compassionate and patient and he was never afraid to speak the truth and he encouraged that in us as well.”

Chan has worked in a range of primary sector management positions over a 20-year period, including central government, local government, non-profit and commercial organisations. 

She was awarded a Member of the NZ Order of Merit in 2022 for services to dairy and agriculture, received the Women in Governance Award for Inspiring Governance Leader in 2021, and was named Dairy Woman of the Year in 2017.

Chan is currently a director of AgriZero, AgReserach, NZ Pork, and PharmaZen and previously served on the boards of RuralCo, Ngai Tahu Farming, Alpine Energy, Meat the Need and Bioprotection Aotearoa. 

“I guess I just try to contribute where I can and it takes me to different places,” she said.

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