Holly Ryan talks to some of the women making waves in New Zealand agribusiness.

Federated Farmers president Katie Milne has lost track of the number of people who have called her farm in Kumara on the West Coast, asking to talk business with the man of the house.

Within minutes, she will often hear her husband say "I'll hand you back to the boss, she can help you," as he returns the phone to her.

This is because although the farm is a partnership, Milne is usually the one managing the books and keeping the business side of things ticking over.

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She says it used to be a common source of amusement for rural women when these calls came in.

As the role of women in agribusiness becomes increasingly recognised, however, the calls have become less frequent.

"When we started out, the first 10 to 15 years, there were just hundreds of those calls," Milne says.

"A lot of people outside farming might not realise agribusiness is hugely influenced behind the scenes by women. We are complete partners most of the time.

"But it's not necessarily widely known because we don't step out into the fore, but that is changing."

A lot of this change is being driven by the growing number of women stepping into leadership roles in the sector - not least Milne herself.

Just last month, she became the first woman in Federated Farmers' 118-year history to be appointed president.

New Zealand's lack of women in business leadership roles has long been highlighted as a major issue.

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The NZX's gender diversity statistics show that in 2016, just 17 per cent of listed company directors were female - unchanged from the previous year. Of the top 50 listed companies, just one has a female chief executive - Kate McKenzie of Chorus.

According to business leader Mavis Mullins, however, the agri sector has a forward-thinking view on the issue.

"Based on the optics, it looks like women are pushing through a bit quicker in agribusiness than other spaces," Mullins says. "But I think there's also a lot more understanding that if we're going to get ahead, we can't do it with 50 per cent of our population latent.

"We have to engage the smarts of everyone if we want to make a difference."

Although exact statistics are hard to find, the industry certainly has a high proportion of women in top leadership roles. This includes the likes of Kirsten Bryant - director at Beef and Lamb, Dawn Sangster - director at Alliance Group, Fiona Hancox - director at Silver Fern Farms, Nicole Rosie - chief executive at WorkSafe New Zealand, and Fiona Gower - president of Rural Women New Zealand, to name just a few.

Kirsten Bryant - was elected director at Beef + Lamb. Photo / Stuart Munro
Kirsten Bryant - was elected director at Beef + Lamb. Photo / Stuart Munro

"We're noticing a lot more the growing number of women coming through, not just in agribusiness, but in rural leadership roles which is great to see," says Gower, adding that a lot of those women have been to university or gained other qualifications they bring to the business.

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The changing view of a traditional farm and farmer is also helping the role of women to be recognised.

"When you look at the quality of the women on boards or as CEOs of agribusinesses, it's amazing," she says. "And these people aren't picked for being women, its because they're the best person for the role."

Lindy Nelson, founder of education and training organisation Agri-Women's Development Trust (AWDT), puts it more simply.

"Women are roughly 50 per cent of the human capital that makes up our primary industries - their role is vitally important. It is pretty much 50-50," she says.

The primary industry spans a number of sectors including sheep and beef, horticulture, agriculture, wool and fibre, forestry and wine making, but agri services are also seeing a rise in female roles.

Massey University reports that of the roughly 122 veterinary students it accepts each year, approximately 75 per cent are female.

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Nelson says in the seven years since AWDT was set up, the script has been flipped on how women view their role in the sector, and on how the sector views and utilises female talent.

Just a few years ago, agricultural training programme Taratahi had about 3 per cent of graduates who were female. Today that number is over 30 per cent, with more women choosing farming as a career.

"Part of our work in the last seven years has been making the abnormal, normal," Nelson says.

"Women's leadership is the new normal which is great because when we keep putting women up as being odd because they're women, we take away the skills base and why they're there - and that is to add value and through merit."

The Maori agribusiness sector is also a fast-growing one, with Nelson saying this makes up an estimated 30 per cent of the sector. Many of the big iwi enterprises are being governed by women.

One of the poster children for women in leadership roles, is Traci Houpapa.

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The Maori business leader currently sits on 11 different boards of corporations, councils, authorities and foundations.

She says research has shown that gender diversity on boards results in stronger outcomes, discussions and decisions for companies and organisation Houpapa says, adding that normalisation has been key.

"It's now normal for people like Katie Milne or myself to lead some of the largest farming and primary industry organisations in the country," she says.

"So when you have female champions, and male champions supporting female champions, it starts to make it easier for others to walk up the on-ramp."

Changing consumer preferences and a shift towards sustainability and environmental awareness has also boosted the female agenda, with Houpapa saying women tend to be naturally very aware in these areas. Traceability of food is now a major focus for consumers.

"People want to know where their food has come from and the farming operation in terms of people, land and animals, and they have a very wellbeing focus," Houpapa says.

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"So again, while our male counterparts might have that understanding as well, I think it's the women that are starting to champion that more, - it's a natural step for us."

THE NEW BREED OF AGRIBUSINESS CAPTAINS
ROBYN CLEMENTS
A founder, past chair and trustee of the Dairy Women's Network, Robyn Clements has had a life-long interest in farming. "I believe agribusiness provides opportunities for individuals, in the NZ primary sector industries to develop their own expertise, feed an expanding global population and provide a sound economic contribution to New Zealand now, and into the future," she says. "It's a fast-changing, dynamic and innovative business that keeps extending you."

Robyn Clements.
Robyn Clements.

Clements has had leadership positions that include working with Fonterra as a shareholder councillor, and member of its joint board and council committees. She is a Kellogg scholar through Lincoln University and has been chairwoman of community organisations. She is now on the Primary Industry Training Organisation board, in addition to agri-business interests in Waikato, and Basketball New Zealand's board. She lives on a Waikato farm with her husband. Clements credits her parents as early role models and mentors. More recently, she has been inspired by the young women emerging as primary sector leaders. Clements says. The best piece of advice she has received? "It is okay to make a mistake if you learn from it - then it's a lesson."

MAVIS MULLINS
Mavis Mullins was raised in Dannevirke on the family farm, where she still lives. Her CV is an impressive one: as well as work with her family business, Mullins Paewai Shearing, she was the Golden Shears' first - and so far, only - female president.

She has had governance roles at Landcorp, 2degrees Mobile, health boards, the Massey University Council, Aohanga Incorporation, Atihau Whanganui Incorporation, Maori business development trust Poutama and Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre, to name a few.

Mavis Mullins.
Mavis Mullins.

Despite her extensive track record, Mullins laughs when asked about her leadership roles.

"I started a governance career not by design but by accident," she says. "But it's been a great journey with some great people - it all comes down to people." Mullins says she is lucky to have had many amazing role models, starting with her parents, who made her aware of the power of a great team.

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In making decisions, she lives by a single motto.

"You have to think with your head, feel with your heart but you always have to trust your puku, your gut," she says. "You have to have all three things working for you to be right - no matter what it is."

TRACI HOUPAPA
Raised on a King Country sheep and beef farm, Traci Houpapa says that's where she is happiest, although a typical day usually involves juggling her many leadership roles.

Houpapa sits on 11 boards of corporations, councils, authorities and foundations. That includes chairing Landcorp Farming, the Federation of Maori Authorities and the National Advisory Council for the Employment of Women.

She says her leadership career grew organically and is one she loves - although she has to get up at 3am every day to fit everything in.

Traci Houpapa. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Traci Houpapa. Photo / Brett Phibbs

She is regularly asked to add to her portfolio with other appointments, but is very considered in her decision making. "I only accept appointments that will add to the forward movement of our country," she says.

"I'm big on supporting the role of women in terms of building, growing and leading in primary industry. It's about normalising the role of women in leadership positions."

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Houpapa subscribes to the view that ordinary people doing ordinary things can achieve the extraordinary when motivated by a higher order or power. She describes her leadership style as firm, fair, inclusive and considered.

FIONA GOWER
President of Rural Women New Zealand, Fiona Gower doesn't consider herself an industry leader, despite heading one of the sector's largest organisations. "Rural women, we never look at ourselves as amazing leaders, we just get on and do things."
Raised on a farm in Rangitaiki, Gower worked in the woolsheds and service industry before managing rural retail stores. She then moved into community support and began her journey into leadership roles.

Fiona Gower. Photo / Hagen Hopkins Photography
Fiona Gower. Photo / Hagen Hopkins Photography

She says this wouldn't have been possible without the amazing organisations for rural women. "From branch president through to where I am now as national president [of RWNZ], that support from these organisations to get me where I am has been incredible," she says. "It's a sisterhood."

Gower represents RWNZ on other organisations including the LandCare Trust Board, Police & Rural Stakeholders Partnership Group, Scotlands Te Kiteroa Trust and Rural Communities Trust, as well as community groups. She says agribusiness has incredible potential for women. "We need to keep encouraging younger generations and younger girls to see there is a real future - and it's an amazing one."

LINDY NELSON
A sheep and beef farmer of 30 years, Lindy Nelson is heavily involved in promoting agribusiness to women. As a young bride, struggling to fit in and figure out the business, she says there was a lack of support. After years in business and in the community, she decided to do something about this. "I did some formal research and came up with solutions and wanted to hand it over to someone to take forward," Nelson says. "But they didn't see what I was seeing so I realised I had to create an organisation. It wasn't a path I intended but it's been incredible." Nelson founded the Agri-Women's Development Trust in 2010. It operates programmes aimed at providing education, business leadership and governance skills for women, as well as a supportive community. One of the most important things she has learnt is about personal power. "Often women are held back because they don't think they have positional power, but every one of us has it. That's about influence and how we use it and how we create relationships."

Lindy Nelson.
Lindy Nelson.

Nelson was the 2013 Next Business Woman of the Year, appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to agriculture and women, and named by Primary Magazine as one of the top 10 women in agriculture.