Martha Furst (left), vice chairman of Furst-McNess Co. Inc., talks to Ilene Gordon, chief executive officer of Ingredion Inc., after Gordon’s keynote address.
Martha Furst (left), vice chairman of Furst-McNess Co. Inc., talks to Ilene Gordon, chief executive officer of Ingredion Inc., after Gordon’s keynote address.

Women account for only about one-third of commercially focused positions, such as procurement and risk management, in agribusiness, and even a smaller percentage of middle to upper management.

And companies that don’t have strong programs to recruit and retain women could miss out on the unique perspectives and diversity they bring.

“Businesses and other organizations are more successful when women play important roles,” said Ilene Gordon, chief executive officer of Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill.

Her comments came during her Oct. 23 keynote address at the second annual Women in Agribusiness Summit.

A Fortune 500 company, Ingredion specializes in sweeteners and texturizers and had net sales of $6.5 billion in 2012.

Four of nine corporate officers are female, and the company requires at least one qualified female candidate be included for any open directors’ positions, Gordon said.

The requirement is more about creating a diverse workplace than gender equality.

The company works to recruit and retain young talent, but doesn’t have female-specific programs.

“We give all young people training,” Gordon said. “We don’t want to single out women versus men because all young people want to be developed. I’m not a big believer of just a specific program for women in a company because men who are young and ambitious want the same thing.”

But those on a panel on recruiting and retaining women said they supported women-specific programs and shared their company’s efforts to help women advance.

At Minneapolis-based General Mills, women comprise about 40% of directors. And the company works to ensure it has females in the pipeline being groomed for advancement, said Susan Kujava, director of industry relations, bakeries and foodservice division.

The company also sponsors a women’s group as one of five inclusion networks to support cultural diversity, she said.

Stella Cosby, senior director of Total Awards at Agrium Inc., admitted the Calgary, Alberta-based company still has a long ways to go with only 16% women managers. But it has made large strides during the past few years, she said.

Agrium started a women’s network that has since evolved into a mentoring program, she said. The efforts have proven so successful that this year 45 women were paired with mentors.

Baseline data

Much of the conversation during the summit referred to the recently released three-part survey, “Changing Demographics and Experience of Women in Agribusiness.” It was conducted by consulting firm HighQuest Partners, Danvers, Mass.

The first part provided baseline data from 181 participating companies along the agri-business value chain.

The second and third parts, which involved 165 companies, examined women’s attitudes and experiences as well as the existing programs for recruitment, retention and advancement.

According to the baseline survey, about 44% of the agribusiness labor force is women. But they account for only 30% of what the report called “commercially focused positions,” such as procurement, production and risk management.

At the executive level, including chief executive officers, women hold only 21% of the positions in small companies and only 6% in larger companies, according to the survey.

On the other hand, women comprise 82% of marketing, administrative and human resources positions.