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International Women’s Day: #DigitALL – Innovation and technology for gender equality in agriculture

Pictured left to right: Elke Hocking, Gillian Fennell, Belinda Lay and Georgie Townsend.

This International Women’s Day (8 March), we celebrate an impressive group of women in agriculture and gain insights into their challenges, what inspires them and what this year’s theme #DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality means to them.

Here are their stories:

Georgie Townsend, MLA Program Manager – Consultation, Brisbane, Queensland

Georgie Townsend. Credit: Georgie Townsend

Georgie recently joined MLA as Program Manager – Consultation, and is looking forward to engaging with and advocating for producer groups around Australia.

A key part of her role involves collaborating with producers to discuss research, extension and adoption priorities for the Producer Demonstration Site program, as well as ensuring the research MLA invests in matches these priorities. She has a background in program management and major infrastructure impact assessment and has 11 years’ experience in intensive livestock and horticulture in industry development, research management, extension as well as sustainability. Georgie has a science degree in land and water management from Griffith University.  

I was inspired to pursue a career in the red meat industry because…

beef and sheep farming is part of the lifeblood of regional Australia. The industry has always adapted to nature’s challenges, but now it also needs to meet societal expectations for red meat production. The modern grazier will need to continue to stay ahead of the curve, and I am excited by this challenge. 

I believe the biggest challenge facing women in ag is…

working out how to change challenges into opportunities. There are opportunities for women to lead businesses, manage large farming enterprises, advocate for our industry and develop and adopt ag-tech. These opportunities are within reach – we must support the next generation of women coming into ag to have the confidence to go for it.

The advice I would give to women who are just starting out in the red meat industry is…

…take every opportunity. Create a broad network and value the skills that you bring to the role you are in.

To me, #DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality means…

...that from a young age, girls are educated on the opportunity that comes with being part of the digital age in their careers and personal pursuits.

Belinda Lay, ‘Coolindown Farms’, Esperance, WA

Belinda Lay. Credit: DHP Photography.

Belinda and Deon Lay, along with their family, run mixed cropping and livestock enterprise, ‘Coolindown Farms’. An ag-tech innovator, Belinda received the 2019 WA AgriFutures Rural Women's Award for her trials of GPS tracking collars on sheep. Belinda believes technology provides producers with the tools that enables the objective evaluation of not only decision making but the application of science, automation and practice change, at a grassroots level on-farm.

Her involvement in MLA’s co-funded research project, ‘Using devices and data to generate return on investments (ROIs) in a mixed farming enterprise’, has showcased a wide range of benefits and is detailed in Feedback magazine’s Autumn 2023 edition.

I was inspired to pursue a career in the red meat industry…

as a result of my connection to farming through my grandparents. I loved visiting their farm when I was a child and my grandfather used to involve me in whatever he was doing. Feeding cows, starting pumps – he saw helping hands, not gender.

I believe the biggest challenge facing women in ag is…

maintaining balance between work, personal life and community. There is more and more demand on time and the traditional roles are slow to redistribute in agriculture.

The advice I would give to women who are just starting out in the red meat industry is…

network, network, network – don’t underestimate it. Agriculture still works heavily under ‘not what you know but who you know’.

To me, #DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality means…

to be in admiration of women in my community who choose to extend their careers through flexible work arrangements, utilising platforms that emerged during COVID – that juggle isn’t easy.

It means to be encouraging and supportive of those women that enter STEM subjects as a study path, because it’s brave to tackle a new frontier for women everywhere.

I met Indiana Rhind in 2019. She was a university student and I ended up hosting her on our farm. She has just graduated as an Agricultural Engineer, despite her lecturers telling her ‘That’s not a path for girls!’ She now designs deep rippers and other farm machinery. I couldn’t be prouder of her. She’s fantastic and a prime example of what is possible if we do something, anything to support these women.

Elke Hocking, livestock consultant and producer, south-east SA

Elke Hocking. Credit: Elke Hocking.

Elke has over 20 years’ experience in the livestock industry and works as a private livestock consultant. She is involved in extension and adoption programs for red meat and wool producers and gained her Masters’ Degree in Agricultural Science from the University of Adelaide.

Elke and her husband run a prime lamb and beef cattle enterprise. She has farming interests on the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island with her parents’ beef cattle and wool enterprises. Elke is the public officer for the SA Livestock Consultants group, SA Sheep and Beef Industry Blueprint working group member and sits on the Southern Australia Livestock Research Council (SALRC), SA Sheep Industry Fund Board and MLA’s Producer Adoption Reference Group.

She is currently running MLA’s Producer Demonstration Site (PDS) project, ‘Reproductive health and management practices for beef heifers’

I was inspired to pursue a career in the red meat industry because…

I grew up on a farm with parents who spoke positively and passionately about the importance of farming and agriculture to Australia and the world. I couldn't imagine not being involved in the industry and so pursued a degree in Agricultural Science. My first job within the Beef CRC Meat Science team was where my passion for the meat industry started. I was fortunate to be involved in some of the initial eating quality research for the MSA program, which underpins the premium beef brands in Australia today. I'm also a passionate consumer of high quality grassfed beef and lamb and can proudly say that I've been part of the research, extension and adoption, production and consumption of high quality Australian beef and lamb throughout my life.

I believe the biggest challenge facing women in ag is…

other people suggesting that there are challenges in agriculture specifically for women. Everyone faces challenges throughout their careers. I firmly believe that it is how each individual deals with these challenges and grows from the experience that is important.

The advice I would give to women who are just starting out in the red meat industry is…

build your self-confidence and sense of belonging within the industry by investing time in developing your personal skillset and emotional intelligence, not just your technical skills. Finding your 'niche' within this incredible industry can take time and may involve a variety of jobs and experiences in different fields along the way – don't be too impatient to have the perfect job straight away. Take the time to develop extensive networks across the industry as well as trying to find mentors (either male or female), who can be a sounding board when challenges arise. I have been fortunate to have had a couple of fantastic male mentors from within my early career networks who encouraged and supported me back into the industry after having a family.

To me, #DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality means…

focusing on the development of digital platforms that improve the flexible work options, access to services and connectedness for people living and working in rural and remote communities, regardless of age, gender or race.

Gillian Fennell, agfluencer, communicator and collaborator, SA

Gillian Fennell. Credit: Gillian Fennell.

Gillian Fennell is an ‘agfluencer’ with over 20 years’ experience in the beef cattle industry.

Her background as a cattle producer from one of the most isolated areas of Australia gives her a unique perspective on the power and possibilities of social media in the agricultural industry. Her time spent serving on industry boards and committees has given her a deep understanding of all aspects of the industry that she loves. She’s passionate about seeing the Australian red meat industry thrive and continue to be the most sustainable production system in the world.

I was inspired to pursue a career in the red meat industry because…

…I wanted to be part of something that is challenging and rewarding. Despite the extremes of weather, market fluctuations and bone-deep exhaustion at times – there is something innately rewarding about raising beef cattle in a healthy, natural environment knowing that they go on to provide clean, nutritious protein for other families across Australia and around the world.

I believe the biggest challenge facing women in ag is…

…access to affordable and equitable childcare. Many of us have families that we love and cherish, but we don’t get the support we need to be able to raise our children and continue to participate in the industry we love. For many of us, the remote locations of our work and the hazardous nature of some of the things we do mean that we can’t contribute as much as we would like to. It puts a great strain on our lives and businesses.

The advice I would give to women who are just starting out in the red meat industry is…

…to never think that you are in this alone. We owe our ability to participate as equals in this industry to the brave women who came before us. There is always someone out there who can provide advice, support and a shoulder to lean on when you think things are getting tough. You deserve to be here, you are a valuable part of this industry – whether it’s in a paddock, in a lab, behind a desk, on the works floor, walking the halls of Parliament or at the kitchen table – your contribution is essential.

To me, #DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality means…

…that there’s now a greater opportunity to have our voices as women in red meat heard by everyone around the world. We can use the power of social media to share our stories with other producers, customers and consumers and highlight the challenges that we face and the work we’re doing to deliver first class red meat to the world.