Women and minorities are still not well enough represented in senior positions, speakers tell Oxford Farming Conference

Minette Batters

Minette Batters

Farm leaders need to do more to make boardrooms more diverse and reflect the range of talent in the industry.

That opinion was put across during a session on ‘Diversified leadership’ at the Oxford Farming Conference on 5 January, where speakers outlined the industry’s opportunity to embrace a wider range of viewpoints.

Outgoing NFU president Minette Batters – who is the only female president in the NFU’s history – said that she had been warned early in her career that, being a woman in a position of leadership in farming, she “would have to work twice as hard and will be judged twice as hard”.

“That message has been with me throughout the last 10 years, and from that day on I was determined on behalf of women not to let them down, and that has been the driver for whatever woman comes in to be the next president of the NFU, and I hope there will be many, many more,” she said.

Diana Overton, group finance director at Frontier Agriculture, was forthright in her view that the leadership of farming businesses generally is not representative of the diversity of the industry’s workers. “Look around the boardroom tables and conference platforms – these forums are not diverse enough to ensure that all the best ideas are surfacing,” she said.

“Agriculture as an industry is already gender diverse and I am very pleased to see how well this is illustrated in the audience for today’s conference. But this is still the rare exception to the norm. How many farm businesses depend on a woman who will typically be juggling multiple back office roles - the banking, accounting, payroll, procurement, trading?

“These are all crucial to the success of a modern farming business, and what’s more these roles are embracing innovation on a daily basis. They are harnessing data and technology that will be critical to identifying new solutions for our industry, but the visible face of agriculture does not reflect this diversity.”

Referencing Batters as inspiration, Overton had a message for women and other minority groups in farming: “Here is my challenge to you - if you’ve got ideas and you’re not visible, be brave, step out of the back office, step out of the shadows. And if you’re in a position of leadership, look around you and ask yourself what you can do make sure that the diversity of voices and ideas that you nurture and promote is equal to the scale and the complexity of the challenge that we face today.”

Batters on politics 

Meanwhile, Batters gave an entertaining rundown of her view of some of the politicians she has locked swords with over the course of her tenure.

She singled out Michael Gove as a good leader, describing him as someone with “extraordinary capability [who] could absorb detail at such a phenomenal pace, so he always knew his brief and was always charming”. She added wryly: “Did I ever trust him? Probably not.” 

In a similar vein, Batters was warm in her appraisal of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who she said was equally capable as Gove. “He’s a technical guy, he’s got a brain that is working 24/7 so he can absorb detail and I was really impressed when he came to our headquarters, to the hustings, and he can do it. But [he’s] lacking vision, lacking a plan and that’s what has been missing.”

Batters was less complimentary about two other recent PMs. “My goodness, Boris Johnson,” she said, “And Liz Truss in particular was memorable for many, many wrong reasons. She never did details so she was never, ever on top of her brief.”