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Why gender balance is the key to delivering a sustainable food system

A recent report by McKinsey entitled ‘Women in Food’ has highlighted a huge gender imbalance in the food sector. We met with Dr Shima Barakat from the University of Cambridge to find out what EIT Food is doing about it.

30 Sep 2019

Hi Shima, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I’m an engineer by background, so really nothing to do with food, but I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. Once I started working, I became increasingly intrigued by what it was that made businesses interested in being more socially and environmentally responsible, and when I couldn’t get the answers at work, I decided to do a PhD in business strategy and the environment. I soon realised that the big change wasn’t going to come from big businesses on their own. Instead the entrepreneurship community could make changes because they aimed to be disruptive. There was also a lot of commitment, interest and passion from entrepreneurs to do something in that space. So that’s the area I’ve been working in for the past 20 years: how we use and enable entrepreneurship to disrupt market spaces, to deliver a more sustainable world.

And how did you get involved with EIT Food?

Due to my expertise in entrepreneurship I was invited to explore the possibility of a consortium forming around food. This consortium turned into EIT Food. The attraction for me was that the food sector has such big sustainability issues that need to be tackled, and that this was a community that was committed to overcoming these through entrepreneurship.

Ok, so what are the issues around gender balance in the food sector?

Simply put, the numbers aren’t great. In the food sector we have a majority of women in entry-level positions (around 60%), but by the time you get to the top it drops to between 9-25%, depending on which part of the food chain you are looking at.

However, research has shown that if you have gender-balanced teams and, importantly, gender-balanced top management, businesses are more likely to employ sustainable practices. Therefore, the more women we can get starting businesses and taking senior management positions, the more likely we are to deliver a sustainable food system.

So is the food sector just not an attractive career choice for women then?   

Interestingly, women are more likely to start businesses that have an impact for creating good. So, the more we are promoting sustainability and moving businesses to be more sustainable, particularly across the food sector, the more we are creating spaces that reflect women’s interests and talents.  As soon as you create sustainability initiatives, you see a natural rise of women in those spaces, so we need to create more of these. It’s a win-win situation: by creating more space for women, you take a bigger step towards sustainable practices and to delivering a more sustainable food system!

What is preventing women entering the food and entrepreneurship space?

Unless you think there is something inherently flawed about women, that we can’t be entrepreneurs or leaders and so on, then the numbers we are seeing cannot be due to whatever it is that the women are doing. I aspire to the principle of ‘Don’t fix the women, fix the system’, which means the question we have to address is ‘How do we fix the system?’.

Many different reasons contribute to this structural challenge, for instance women might be being mentored, but they are not necessarily being coached or sponsored. If you are only mentored but not sponsored, then your voice is not necessarily represented at the top or with funders. I think there are also many damaging stereotypes to overcome, including that women don’t necessarily ‘look like entrepreneurs’, or that they don’t ‘look like they are going to make a lot of money’, or they are seen to be setting up businesses which are more about impact than finance. I believe there is a preconception that if you want to be seriously investing, then you don’t invest in a woman. But actually, what we should be doing is looking at all-male teams and saying, ‘you’re a risk to my investment’, because research has shown that gender-balance in business and entrepreneurial teams delivers better results, they use less resources and they survive better in times of adversity.

So, what do we do to get more women entrepreneurs in the food system?

We create a women’s network! This means that women can start to share information with each other in a way that they couldn’t before, but most importantly, it means that they are visible to each other. If you are in that top 9% of women in senior management positions, then you rarely see someone that looks like you, and that is a pretty isolating environment to be in. Part of my research has been focussed around ‘tokenism’, and how when you feel you are in a situation where you are a ‘token’, where you feel you are employed simply to make up diversity quotas, you start to display artificial behaviours. The two behaviours that result are either over-identifying with the stereotyping and becoming ‘girly’, or distancing from the stereotype and aligning as well as displaying the behaviours and characteristics of the majority. This isn’t due to gender, it’s a ‘token’ phenomenon. Examples of this are women who take on particularly caring or other typically feminine roles in the workplace, or women who embrace overt masculine behaviours. These behaviours reinforce stereotypes and the biases associated with them, as well as increase the stress levels of the individuals who are unable to be authentic. We can disrupt that by creating environments where women leaders can be around other women. This helps to promote natural behaviours and brings back notions of authentic leadership, as well as providing a trusted network to bounce ideas around.

You are the Project Lead for the new WE LEAD programme, could you explain a little bit about what that is?

WE LEAD is a completely new initiative for women. It was very important to us that the programme is co-created between the project partners - my institution University of Cambridge, as well as EUFIC and IMDEA - and the participants, because we want it to be both tailored to individuals and by individuals. We provide the tools and space and challenging questions, but actually it’s up to each individual to shape the programme as best fits themselves as a person, taking into account their changing needs and vision, but also the organisational context in which they find themselves.

How is WE LEAD different from other leadership training schemes?

All organisations have expectations about what a leader should look like and how they should behave, but we are actually saying ‘You can be whoever you want to is some space and the tools to help you discover who you want to be…how can we help you on this journey and what can we do to support you, to enable you, to catapult you forward to be the sort of leader you want to be and deliver the change that you want?’.

Women’s leadership development programmes are often focused on changing women into the alpha-male leader their organisation is expecting. This is because women themselves buy into the myth that they need to develop and adapt to the system. We will be working to challenge that and reinforcing the fact they are fine the way they are, and we will instead empower them to think about what they can do to change the system.

How many women will you be supporting through the WE LEAD programme?

We have just closed the registration for this year’s programme. We had 99 applicants from all over the globe for places on WE LEAD, from Mexico to Singapore, Denmark to New Zealand, and we are making 40 offers. These applicants included corporate senior managers, heads of divisions, heads of accelerator programmes, CEOs of SMEs as well as some impressive up-and-coming leaders. This diversity is really important, as we were keen to look for leaders rather than managers, and not discriminate due to work experience. By encouraging this diversity we will create a network of women who are passionate and committed to delivering change.

What do you feel the benefits of participating will be?

The women will benefit from a ready-made network of women leaders from across the entire food value chain, enabling them to draw on knowledge and insights from other parts of the sector that they might not currently have access to. They will have trusted sounding boards to discuss whatever challenges they might want to take on in the future. They will be equipped with the entrepreneurial and leadership tools to enable them to successfully take on bigger challenges and tackle the system in a way that they might not have done before.

So, what is the time commitment for participants, and what does the programme look like?

The time commitment is six days in person, so three days in Cambridge and then a month later three days in Madrid. We are interested in catalysing change, so during the month in between, we expect them to start to implement some of their ideas with the mentors and the support that are provided through the programme. So, they will decide what they would like to do within their organisational spaces, and they can start taking the first steps to implementing that. It could be a small project and they might implement the whole of it in that month, or it could be something huge and they just take the first steps to building a foundation. Whatever they need in that month, the necessary mechanisms and people will be put in place to support them.    

Let’s fast-forward a few years, what do you see the future looking like?

I see a future where top management teams and founding teams have a gender balance around the 50:50 mark - so that we can actually get the value for business, for society, and for the environment that having this balance brings. We have a sustainability crisis, and its only by having that diversity of leadership that we are going to deliver a more sustainable food system, and a more sustainable, safe and equitable world.

No small ambition then! And what role will EIT Food play in this positive future?

I feel that EIT food is uniquely placed to deliver on this vision because of the partnerships we have, the diversity of culture and expertise across the supply chain, but also importantly the mixture between big business, startups, universities and research institutions. Furthermore, EIT has established connections to policymakers as well, giving us such a unique ecosystem and environment. The EIT Food community is what we need to drive the change we need.

Further information about WE LEAD and how to sign up can be found here. The project partners for WE LEAD include Eufic, Pepscio, Queens University Belfast, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) and University of Cambridge.  

About Dr Shima Barakat: Shima is the Director of Entrepreneurship for Sustainability Programme at the University of Cambridge and the Project Lead for the new WE Lead programme, an EIT Food initiative creating a network of women leaders who wish to drive change, innovation and sustainability within the food sector.

About the author: Dr Lucy Wallace is a freelance writer with a background in research communications and an interest in novel engagement methods with diverse audiences.