Business management

Why women should carve out a place in the meat industry

The meat business hasn’t typically appealed to women, but industry advocate Laura Ryan is working to prove that the sector is the place for young women to develop exciting and rewarding careers.

A self-described ‘townie’ with no connection to farming, marketing expert Ryan fell into the meat industry by accident after graduating from university and becoming a marketing manager for a meat wholesaler.

Quickly realising she loved working in the sector, she climbed the ranks in the marketing team at EBLEX (English Beef and Lamb Executive), later known as AHDB Beef and Lamb, eventually becoming director of sector strategy.

But while Ryan felt she’d found her perfect career it became apparent that few other women understood her enthusiasm about the sector she’d grown to love. 

“What I found, particularly as my career became more senior, was that I was often one of only a few females in a room, particularly at a senior level,” she says.

“But more so than that, I would chat to my friends over a drink in the pub, and they would say: ‘Why do you want to work in the meat industry?’

“These were talented friends who worked in medicine or finance or law, and they would have never considered a career in the meat industry; it just didn’t sound appealing.

“I could see there were two issues: one was the image of our sector not attracting female talent, but also being sat in meetings thinking: ‘Where is that pipeline of female talent coming to the top?’”

We need to be getting the best talent into our sector by putting ourselves in the shop window, and we’re not doing that enough at the moment. Research shows that if you have more diversity in your board table, then you’re going to make more profit

Laura Ryan
Chair, Meat Business Women

“Initially, we were very focused on post-farm gate and the processing sector, as I thought that it was easier for women to get into farming because many are born into it,” she says.

“But as we’ve progressed, it’s been really interesting to see how our appeal has grown into the producer sector too.

“I think that’s because women are more progressive in terms of working together, and we’ve realised that we’re all in the production supply chain with similar challenges – it doesn’t matter what side you’re on.”

By engaging with women across the sector, Ryan says she has noticed how energised and positive they feel about working in the meat industry – and how few feel their gender has held them back.

Not always family-friendly

Where challenges seem to arise, however, is in the long hours associated with operational roles, which can often put women at a disadvantage.

“Hours can be extremely long, and there is so much travel when you get to a senior level,” she says. “That can be really hard to navigate, especially if you’ve got a family. It leads people to say they don’t want that type of working life, and that’s tough.”

To help get a better understanding of how to address these challenges, Meat Business Women recently commissioned research into meat processing in the UK and Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Looking at frontline packing roles through to boardroom positions, the research aims to identify the barriers to getting more women into the sector and find ways to promote the industry to them.

“We need to be getting the best talent into our sector by putting ourselves in the shop window, and we’re not doing that enough at the moment,” Ryan says. “So the report will be really positive and solution-based about what Meat Business Women can do.

“It’s the first time ever there’ll be any data around the number of women working in the processing sector and the meat industry,” she adds.

“We’re hoping that by unpicking the detail we’ll not only understand how we can improve retention, but also start thinking about how to attract talent in the first place.”

As well as drawing women to the sector, Laura also hopes the information will help businesses in the sector look seriously at their diversity and recognise the benefits of having more women on their teams.

“Almost every single week someone asks: ‘Are you still running your bra-burning group?’. And while it’s banter, it shows we’ve still got a challenge to help the meat industry understand the benefits of diversity,” she says.

“Research shows that if you have more diversity in your board table, then you’re going to make more profit. And why wouldn’t you want to do that?”

The value in diversity

For women who are already in the sector, or those considering joining it, Ryan’s advice is to seek out men and women who can offer advice, share their experiences, and provide motivation. 

“If you’re not in the sector it can appear quite impenetrable, which makes it hard to see what careers are available,” she says. “That’s why it’s an accidental career for 91% of women that work in it.

“Reaching out and speaking to people is so important. Often women feel like networking is a bit of a luxury, but building relationships should be part of your job, and not an add-on.”

With Brexit changing the way businesses will trade in the UK, Ryan says international networks and relationships will become increasingly important to the sector. And with so many opportunities on the horizon, it makes having diverse talent even more critical for the industry.

“Meat Business Women isn’t coming from a negative place; it’s coming from us wanting to champion the industry because we think it’s great, and we want more women to be here,” she says.

“We want talent in the meat industry, and if you work hard there isn’t a ceiling, there’s just huge opportunity. If you’re a shining talent you will rise to the top.”

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