Remaining true to yourself and being authentic was the theme of the keynote speaker at the annual Women in Agriculture lunch, at Farm World in southern Victoria recently.

Speakers over the many years of lunches at Farm World have included journalists, farmers, agribusiness principals, and leaders of charity organisations and other businesses — all with one thing in common: they are women.

There were two guest speakers at this year’s lunch – Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano and Cathy McGowan, ex-politician and now author.

They were introduced by Loretta Willaton from Telstra. Telstra sponsors the lunch, which was attended by about 120 people.

Cathy spoke first, talking about the stories she uses to connect to community and her view of agriculture.

“Agriculture has a production side — that’s the blokes,” Cathy said.

“And it has a marketing side — that’s the women.”

Now in the role of AgriFutures Australia Board chair, Cathy encouraged attendees to participate in courses to advance their skills.

She cited examples from her own life, and what she has learned from attending time management, leadership, mediation and dispute resolution training.

“I’m proudly an Australian woman leader,” she said.

“Doing the Australian Rural Leadership Program course taught me how to change my style about how I deal with people.”

She encouraged attendees to “turn up, speak up and step up to be heard”.

Emma Germano talked about being authentic, even when internal and external forces challenged you.

“Being a women in leadership is different to being a man,” she said.

“We are treated differently.

“I’ve been so conscious over my journey of not playing ‘the woman card’.”

But, Emma said just being a woman in a public leadership role meant you were treated differently.

She said every media outlet wanted to be able to tell their story of her trajectory into the role of VFF president.

This meant that often what she was trying to achieve was clouded by perceptions of her as a young woman, of ethnic background, from a minority agricultural sector.

Those perceptions led to personal attacks in public and private that Emma was not prepared for.

“I can see the issues needed to be heard, but it’s harder to get heard when the focus is on me personally,” she said.

Personal vendettas compounded the risk of being ignored when — in her role as VFF president — she was advocating against government policy decisions that closed down food production businesses and even an agricultural industry sector overnight — as happened during and pre pandemic.

“The personal attacks were based on difference — I’m a young woman, I am of ethnic background and I come from what’s perceived as a minority agricultural sector,” Emma said.

“There were many times when I’d be talking to Dad about how hard it was and he’d say, ‘too bad’.

“He and Mum have taught me that demonstrating leadership is about being authentic to myself.

“In the role of VFF president, I’ve learned that when the culture around us encourages us to not speak up, those who get heard are the extreme voices.

“And they don’t represent the majority of us.

“That means the 80 per cent of us in the middle need to support each other.”

Emma quoted statistics to demonstrate farmers are among the most trusted people in the community.

“People trust us to be concerned about the environment, animal welfare, soil health, safe workplaces and producing healthy food,” she said.

“That trust is unusual to many vocations.

“So, if we let the extreme voices be heard, they represent a disproportionate view of what the community believes and supports.

“That’s why we need your voices to be heard,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges Emma has undertaken in her terms as VFF president, is leading a board of management that wants to change the fundamental way the farmer-member organisation operates.

“The board decided income needs to be higher than expenses,” she said.

“By being accountable for change has meant some of our worst challenges have been from within the organisation.”

Emma said she did not understand how change would feel like a threatening process for some people. Those are lessons she has taken on board, sometimes with humility.

Her main message was to be authentic and ask for authenticity from other people.

“Leadership will be hard,” Emma said.

“But as dad said, ‘too bad’. There’s no golden key, no ideal pathway, you just have to keep on going.

“And you need to support other people around you. You need all types of people in your team.

“Be authentic — that’s what resonates with people.

“This is my final year as president and I thought it would be neat and tidy. It’s still messy.

“But by keeping on going, change inches slowly forward and opponents drop off.

“I’m leaving an opportunity for other people to continue to grow the organisation.”

Emma’s concluding words of advice were to encourage attendees to value diversity.

“We need to enable diversity in thinking and viewpoints to be in the conversation.”