The number of women in the dairy industry is increasing, but the growth is not coming free of obstacles.

A report released by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) shows that while the dairy industry has made significant progress in supporting and empowering women, several challenges remain, particularly when it comes to elevating women into leadership roles.

IDFA released its comprehensive 2024 State of Women in Dairy report in January. The goal of the survey was to establish gender equality benchmarking data for the US dairy sector and develop recommendations for possible industry actions.

“Through our first ever State of Women in Dairy report, IDFA is providing its members and dairy industry with data-based metrics and recommendations to support gender equality across the entire supply chain,” said Becky Rasdall, senior vice president, trade and workforce policy, and leader of the Women in Dairy initiative. “This report highlighted areas of strength and commitment on the part of dairy companies to support and empower women. It also highlighted many challenges. Women in the dairy industry report feeling less respected, facing pay disparities, desiring increased mentorship and encountering barriers to advancement due to gender biases.”


Report findings

The report was conducted by IDFA between Oct. 17 and Nov. 7, 2023, and included a sample of online surveys completed by 548 industry professionals. The survey respondents included 396 women and 152 men of varying ages, job functions and length of experience in the global dairy industry, including those working for processors, farms, farmer cooperatives, retailers and suppliers. IDFA conducted a similar, less comprehensive survey early in 2023 to gather insights which were used to calibrate a more comprehensive State of Women in Dairy survey.

The survey focused on three categories of questions: demographic data, experiential responses and policy-based responses. The survey included both quantitative and qualitative questions for responses, with the latter focusing on perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. Statements describing experiences working in the dairy industry were taken directly from long-answer responses submitted to the online survey.

According to the report, noted areas of strength in the US dairy industry include organizations having policies or procedures in place that prohibit discrimination based on gender, flexible work schedules and opportunities for advancement offered by employers.

The survey also revealed reported gender disparities, particularly in areas of career advancement, experiences in the workplace, compensation, mentorship and overall company policies supporting women. Responses indicate women in the industry often feel overlooked, undervalued and underpaid, and that their ambitions may be misrepresented. The survey results also highlight a disconnect between men and women on these same factors.

Much like in the wider manufacturing sector, the gender pay gap in US dairy is real, and it is a significant added challenge to women already feeling disadvantaged in obtaining promotions.

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Other key takeaways included:

• Women in dairy report receiving less support from leaders within their organizations. Women feel that increased opportunities for mentorship, sponsorship and allyship offered by leaders would help women advance.

• Survey data indicated that women in US dairy are at least as ambitious as men, but that they felt their gender plays a significant role, both past and present, in their ability to advance within the sector.

• Promotion opportunities and flexible work schedules are critical factors to retaining women in US dairy, while men also indicate an interest in leaving the sector if promotion opportunities are not provided.

• Anti-discrimination policies on gender are widespread, but their implementation and effectiveness are unclear to respondents who seek greater cultural change.

While the study was comprehensive, Rasdall said she has received feedback that could possibly help round-out survey results even further. Some of the suggested improvements included intentionally seeking more feedback from plant workers and frontline employees, ensuring there is better demographic data on the type of role respondents are in within the sector, asking respondents whether their workplace provides access to employee resource groups (ERGs), and asking whether a respondent has specifically asked for a promotion before, how they did it and the outcome.


Insights from leaders

A panel of industry professionals spoke during the “Elevating Women in Dairy” session at IDFA Dairy Forum about the report and the overall state of women in the dairy industry. Panelists included David Ahlem, chief executive officer and president, Hilmar; Robin Kane, chief people officer, Aurora Organic Dairy; and Annie Waring, director of business development, AmeriCold. The panel was moderated by Rasdall.

“I applaud IDFA’s efforts in undertaking a comprehensive survey to understand gender equity in the dairy industry,” Kane said. “As the results indicate, we are slowly making progress through developing programs and policies for equitable pay and career advancement opportunities for women. However, the survey uncovered a number of challenges that we need to address.”

Notably among those challenges, women reported that they perceive that career growth in dairy is not on par with opportunities for their male colleagues. Kane believes one way the issue can be addressed is with programming.

“Companies can take action by institutionalizing early-career rotation programs for women to give them practical experience in core business functions such as production, supply chain, finance and sales,” she said.

Ahlem, the only man on the panel, shared his insights on the importance of listening to those around him, being curious about experiences and finding his blind spots on the issue.

“One thing I think is really important is the posture in which we approach this topic,” Ahlem said. “I think it can be easy at times to become defensive, to focus on just what’s good or what’s right in the situation. And I know I’m learning and still growing in terms of really adopting a posture of really seeking to understand, really expressing some curiosity, trying to understand what is happening, what are the experiences that are out there, what are the structural elements that maybe are contributing to this.”

Ahlem also acknowledged that some of the things that need to be different involve changes that only he as a leader can make, including requesting a pay equity analysis.

“For leaders, I would just say it is really focusing on the things that only we can do in our positions,” he said. “We’re probably one of the few people who can make that decision (to do a pay equity analysis) and call for that to happen. We need to do what we can do. We can’t do everything. We can’t solve all the problems. We’re not going to make all the cultural shifts. But we can do those things and we can take that step. We can role model, we can lead the culture in a certain direction in a certain way.”

When talking about opportunities for empowerment, Waring recalled an instance when IDFA president and chief executive officer Michael Dykes went out of his way to ensure she had a place of visibility in a meeting with a US lawmaker, and how that impacted her.

“I was with IDFA on a fly-in, and there was a US senator that was shaking everyone’s hand and I stuck out my hand and he just skipped right over me, and I was so embarrassed,” Waring said. “But then we walked into the room with his office and Michael Dykes came up to me and said, ‘No, you have to sit at the table. You have to speak up. You need to tell his office who you are. You deserve to be here.’ And so, from a cultural standpoint, if this community can keep telling women that they belong at the table, then you’re right, we won’t need the policies, but we should have them in place anyway and just keep telling everyone to show up to take their seat at the table.”

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Taking action

Several dairy companies are actively working to address gender parity and the advancement of women in their respective workplaces.

Schreiber Foods, Green Bay, Wis., was the inaugural winner of the IDFA Workplace of the Year award in January. The award recognizes a company that has created policies to promote a positive workplace experience, including efforts to support women and minorities.

When it comes to empowering women, Schreiber offers Global Women’s Development Circles, which are designed to give women a safe place to have conversations about life and career. They are led by CEO Ron Dunford and includes women from various levels in the organization across the globe. Schreiber also offers Network of Women Business Leaders (NOWBL) as part of its Business Resource Groups.

In 2023, Aurora Organic Dairy, Boulder, Colo., introduced the Aurora Women’s Network, an employee resource group to support women in their careers and family life. In its first year, the group held a series of women’s golf lessons to increase connections across different locations and departments.

Leprino Foods, Denver, works with a third-party to conduct pay equity analysis. The company has conducted four surveys (two internal surveys and two external surveys) to date. Each survey year, results have demonstrated equity in pay within the company and the latest external survey (2022) results showed that Leprino pays dollar for dollar when comparing women and men.


Women’s summit

On March 18, 50 women in the dairy industry descended upon Washington, DC, to attend the inaugural IDFA Women’s Summit.

IDFA developed the summit as a way to bring together rising and established leaders to advance gender equality and offer practical strategies to better support women at all levels of the dairy industry.

The summit kicked off with The Leader’s Blueprint, a session facilitated by Elle O’Flaherty, founder of Interlace Solutions, Washington. The interactive overview reviewed key elements critical in leadership, including practical applications for implementing them.

Attendees also heard from Kirsten Hillman Ambassador of Canada; Abagail Blunt, an ESG leader and food policy expert; Dana Brooks, president and chief executive officer, the Pet Food Institute; Lindsay Buchanan Burke, partner, Covington & Burling LLP; and Rep. Celeste Maloy of Utah’s 2nd District. The dinner program included a fireside chat with Ashley Ellixson, chief commercial officer, United Dairymen of Arizona.

Throughout the program, speakers discussed the challenges of rising into leadership positions as women in their respective fields, while also offering advice to those looking to do the same. Questions from attendees included concerns about imposter syndrome, finding confidence and practicing self-advocacy. (A 2021 study from InnovateMR, Calabasas, Calif., concluded that 65% of professionals suffer from imposter syndrome. Of those, young women were disproportionately affected.)

Hillman, the first woman to be appointed to the office of Canadian Ambassador to the United States, shared experiences from her professional career of being in board rooms full of men and questioning whether or not she belonged there. She said that it took time, but she eventually realized that she deserved to be in those rooms, and encouraged attendees to believe that they belong there, too.

“Learning who you are and what works for you, through trial and error, through conversations with friends, mentors and family, can be crucially important,” Hillman said. “Trust yourself and believe in yourself … believe that you’re there because you deserve to be there.”

Attendees also spent an afternoon on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress to discuss some key issues for the dairy industry, including: Dairy Nutrition Incentive Programs (S. 1474/HR 5099), Whole Milk for Healthy Kids (S. 1957/HR 1147), Healthy Fluid Milk Incentive Projects and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. It also included a lunch with a keynote speech from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Dykes, who was in attendance throughout the summit, said the event highlighted the talent present among women in the industry.

“The leadership development sessions were enlightening, the speakers were dynamic and engaging, and it was clear to me throughout the event that we have strong, dedicated female leaders who will take our industry to new heights,” Dykes said. “It was important for me to attend and actively engage in these discussions so that we can build an environment where everyone can thrive and contribute to our collective success.”


Deputy secretary of agriculture shares remarks

Attendees of the IDFA Women’s Summit were joined by United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small on the morning of March 20. The deputy secretary shared some remarks with the group before attendees made their way to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers on issues affecting the dairy industry.

Prior to her confirmation as deputy secretary, Torres Small served as under secretary for rural development, part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Before joining USDA, Torres Small was the first woman and first person of color to represent New Mexico’s second congressional district. She was elected to the office in 2018 and held it for one term before being defeated in 2020. She shared that while that loss was difficult, failure was what helped her figure out what came next.

“Even though I would have preferred to win, losing was one of the best things that happened to me,” she said. “It taught me that I can fail at things that really matter to me. And it hurts, but it’s also worth it. And for me, that failure made me stronger.”

After her loss, Torres Small recalled the close working relationship she had with USDA Rural Development in New Mexico while serving as a staffer for Tom Udall, former senator from New Mexico and current US ambassador to New Zealand. She saw firsthand how rural development work was creating immediate opportunity through investments in projects, such as housing along the US-Mexico border and wastewater infrastructure. That experience led her to USDA and, later, her current post.

Torres Small also applauded the women in attendance for investing their time into leadership development.

“It just speaks to the importance of investing in leaders across ag and specifically women who bring a really valuable perspective,” she said. “In the dairy industry, there are opportunities that are available for market development and for your work, both in terms of ag market development, but also advocacy. So I just so appreciate the time you’re taking to invest in yourselves, because as women, that’s not something that we always do.”