A plethora of research exists highlighting the positive correlation between gender-balanced teams and high productivity, sustainable business practices, and increased profitability. Where financial performance is concerned, companies in the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams are around 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability than their industry peers in the bottom quartile, McKinsey research shows.
Nevertheless, the food industry is falling behind on diversity in leadership, with representation of women and other historically marginalised groups on boards in 2020 at 35%, compared to a 47% average in the consumer-staples (non-food) sector. If the industry is committed to creating a more sustainable food system, then it must address this imbalance.
Attempting to do just that, the Women’s Networking Breakfast at Fi Europe 2022 brought together a group of influential representatives from across the food industry in Paris last December to discuss the benefits and challenges of building diverse food businesses, as well as providing actionable advice to food professionals on how to best go about doing so.
Women face difficulties in securing funding to launch businesses
It is a commonly known fact that female founders receive significantly less capital than men when fundraising for businesses. For the past decade in the US, the total amount of venture capital money granted to female-only teams has varied from 1.8% to 2.7%.
In 2020, just 2.3% of funding globally went to women-led startups, down from 2.8% the year before. Improving female access to funding and supporting female founders financially is one way to create a more representative food ecosystem.
“When it comes to venture capital, investors have a very important role to play in creating gender balance by specifically investing in female founders,” said Marion Bazille, senior programme manager at venture capital (VC) fund Big Idea Ventures.
“We see a clear difference in female and male founders in the food industry in terms of confidence in asking for funding and approaching VC’s.”
Globally, women represent only around one quarter of new business owners and directors. The disparity between male and female entrepreneurs may be a result of societal norms, according to which women are the primary caregivers and take a more active role in family life than men. According to one poll, female entrepreneurs spend more time each day with their families while men spend 56% of their day working on their business venture, compared to 43% of women.
“Generally, female founders [are] not the same age as men. They tend to be either 25 to 30 years old or older than 45, after having had children. This raises the question of financial risk. We see that for women, it is often more difficult for them to take a business risk [than it is for men],” said Bazille.
Research shows that societal norms and expectations can also limit women who do decide to become entrepreneurs from reaching leadership positions. The Reykjavik Index for Leadership by Kantar shows how sector-level perceptions of the suitability of individuals to hold positions of power varies between the G7 countries. In the food and drink industry, 80% of respondents surveyed in 2021 believe that women and men are equally suited for leadership positions. The research also shows that over recent years, confidence in female leaders has fallen.
“It is true that differences exist between men and women regarding leadership and psychological styles. The question is how do we overcome socialized norms and change people’s attitudes? The Reykjavik Index shows that the food sector is lagging in diversity in terms of gender balance and has lots of catching up to do,” said Jon Poole, organisational and leadership development consultant at Step Change Development.
Having more women at the top benefits the business
Companies with female leaders often outperform those led by men. The same rings true for diversity of race and nationality, research shows.
“Businesses that have women leaders are generally succeeding, statistics show. Is that because of the leaders themselves or because those businesses are more open minded and are, in turn, making better decisions?” said Poole.
“Top leaders don’t make decisions in a silo; they make decisions having listened to a diversity of viewpoints. If leaders are open-minded and can take in different opinions, ultimately, they will make better decisions.”
Multinational ingredient supplier DSM is one company making steps to increase the representation of women in positions of power. The company is led by a female co-CEO and has 40% female executives at the c-suite level.
“At the top, decision makers can only make the best decisions by ensuring they have as many relevant facts and viewpoints available as possible,” said Elisabeth Hirschbichler, vice president of strategy, innovation, marketing, and transformation at DSM.
“The openness of leadership to listen and at same time foster a culture of people being courageous enough to bring their viewpoint forward even if it may be different to the bias of the group, it essential. Escaping the bias is also extremely important.”
Adopt a zero-tolerance attitude to non-tolerance!
Recognising the biases that exist between genders within companies is a step in the right direction towards establishing sustainable food businesses. Yet to incite lasting change, this must be followed up by action.
Food businesses must seek not only to build inclusive cultures, but also encourage tolerance amongst employees where diversity is concerned, the panellists agreed.
“Of course, we should never tolerate non-tolerance, but beyond that it’s about fostering [a culture of] appreciation. To know and then to appreciate the unknown is the next step towards diversity. Showing and teaching people how to appreciate differences and then tolerate them is key,” said Monique van de Vijver, innovation manager health at non-profit organisation Solidaridad Network.
Training and dedicated resources are essential
One way that companies can actively build tolerance is by providing training and resources, such as unconscious bias training, to employees, advised Poole. However, this is not a one-sized fits all approach.
“It is difficult as you can put people through the training but ultimately it may not change their mindset. It will encourage people who are open minded to become more so, but this is not the case for closed mined employees,” said Poole.
“For these types of people, bad behaviour needs to be called out and good behaviour should be replicated.”