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Shatter the glass ceiling to let in diversity

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 20 November 2013

Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, continues to make headlines more than six months after its release. This “sort of a feminist manifesto” is doing what Sandberg set out to do – call attention to female leadership, or the lack thereof, in the workplace.

Progressive Dairyman set out to examine this subject in the dairy industry today. We asked the following questions of three of the industry’s best women in executive roles.



They are: Jessica Belsito, director of marketing and technical advisor for IBA, Inc. from Millbury, Massachusetts; Pam Bolin, dairy producer and chairwoman of the board for Swiss Valley Farms from Clarksville, Iowa; and Shelly Mayer, dairy producer and executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) from Slinger, Wisconsin.


Do you think women are under-represented in the dairy industry?

In some situations, we may be. Women on sales trucks running sales routes on the chemical side of things are few and far between.

That being said, however, I see women popping up in all other aspects of the industry, from herdswomen to semen sales to nutritionists.


And in other areas, I would say we are starting to dominate the industry, for example, in marketing.


BOLIN: It depends on what board you are looking at. On the co-op boards, there are less women than men, but in dairy promotion boards like the Midwest Dairy Association or Dairy Management Inc., you see several more female leaders.


MAYER: I think that the dairy industry has lagged behind some of the other industries in having an equal balance of women and men in all segments of it, both in management as well as in other parts of the decision-making process that drives an industry forward.

Our industry will only benefit by having more diversity in our workforce at all different levels because our consumers that are buying our products and making decisions are diverse.

The biggest thing that we need is diversity in agriculture and in the entire food system. I’m not just talking men and women – all different ethnicities because what is America supposed to be? The melting pot. Our consumer is very diverse.

We’re also trying to be a better producer for the world market, and the world is certainly a diverse place. I see embracing diversity and using that as our strength as a really important thing for agriculture to do.


American agriculture can no longer be dominated by the 50-year-old white man because that’s not our consumer.

Are gender stereotypes still prevalent in the dairy industry?

BELSITO: Some of the industry veterans may still have stereotypes. But most men I work with do not seem to stereotype me anymore. When I was younger, that was more of a problem, but it is tough to say if that was age or gender-related. I do not run into it very often now.

BOLIN: I don’t think there is as much in dairy as in other areas of agriculture.

MAYER: We certainly see gender stereotyping happening within our industry, as we see it in many other businesses. I do think it is changing.

When was the last time someone asked you if they could speak to the ‘man in charge?’ How did you handle it?

BELSITO: It was about a year ago. I very politely answered, “I would be more than happy to leave him a message for you, but he will ask me to take care of it anyway, so why not just talk to me?”

BOLIN: It has been quite a while now. In our community everyone knows that I am involved on the farm. I remember in my first year on the Swiss Valley Farms board, I attended a meeting of the National Milk Producers Federation.

When I was introduced to someone as a board member, the guy looked at me and laughed. At the time, I let the chairman who had introduced me handle it.

MAYER: Actually that happens fairly frequently, or they’ll ask for “the boss.” I smile and just take it all in stride because I think it’s an innocent mistake.

It might be habit – just a choice of words that didn’t mean the same thing as what it sounded. And sometimes I just assume that’s a person who hasn’t had the opportunity to get up to speed with change.

Given your past and current experiences, are women’s voices heard equally in the boardroom?

BELSITO: Given my past experiences, yes and no. I have worked with some great people that always wanted my input.

And I have worked for some companies where I was present for appearances but not expected to contribute. Those jobs did not last long. Currently, I feel like my opinion is heard and almost always asked for.

BOLIN: With my experience, I’d say yes – as long as you state your case as dairy producer and not just because you are a female.

MAYER: I can only speak of my experience in the PDPW boardroom, and I would say absolutely. But I work with a very forward-thinking, progressive group of dairy professionals.

The present board, and the past boards I’ve worked with, is very intentional about being good listeners, and they seem to really just look at the people in the boardroom as all being bright equals.

That’s the thing that I like the most about that board, and that’s why I’ve chosen to work for them – because they treat me that way too.

What qualities do women tend to bring to a leadership role?

BELSITO: I think many women are more in touch with other people’s feelings, and we also have a “sixth sense” about people.

This helps us to be more effective leaders, as the people we are working with feel we understand them better. My “sixth sense” helps me to weed out the people I want to work with and do business with, and the people I do not want to cultivate relationships with.

BOLIN: I hope I bring passion and emotion. I think women can do a good job at staying on task. By raising children, I have handled many different roles all at once. Plus, the idea of promoting dairy products to nurture healthy children really hits home to me.

MAYER: I don’t like to stereotype leaders based on gender, but women (not necessarily all women) have a tendency to be more verbal communicators. They also rely a little more on their intuitions.

Both of those qualities are good as a leader – to listen and think with your brain, as well as listen to your instincts. With that probably comes emotional intelligence, or the ability to read other people.

The other quality that I think is important in a leadership role is being able to balance between the big picture – where you’re going – and the details of how to get there. Women can bring that to the table. That is not to say that the most effective male leaders would not have those same qualities.

Name a challenge you’ve had to overcome as a woman in the dairy industry.

BELSITO: This is by far the toughest question to answer. It is still a difficult subject for me. The biggest challenge was parting ways with a company after being harassed by two different men. I blamed myself and felt like I didn’t do a good job.

I did what was asked of me, however, and I did it well. Our failed professional relationship was not my fault. The challenging part was to move on, stay positive and not to bring a bitter attitude to my next job.

I really feel people who do things like that are the minority and I had to remember not to blame all men for the actions of two.

BOLIN: We all have our dairy operations, and with it comes the responsibility to market and promote the healthy products we produce. I once attended a school board meeting with my husband.

One of the teachers’ husbands said to me, “I want to shake the hand of someone who milks cows.” His wife jumped in to say, “No, she doesn’t milk, she just feeds the calves and does bookwork.” Not everyone understands what we do and who we are.

MAYER: I’ve had to learn how to take responsibility for my own emotions and to be wise enough to know when someone is trying to push my buttons.

I have learned someone can’t bother you unless you give him or her permission. I will do for PDPW what is right no matter what anybody says. Then, at the end of the day, I sleep really well knowing I gave it my best.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

BELSITO: The best piece of advice I’ve ever received I found on a piece of paper taped on a wall. It read, “If you do the same thing you have always done, you will get the same thing you have always gotten.”

This applies to every aspect of life. If you want something different out of life, the change has to begin with yourself and your actions.

BOLIN: A good college friend of mine once told me, “Remember the world is run by those who show up.”

MAYER: “Do not try to be somebody else. Focus on what it is that you can bring to the project.” It is not whether I need to be the woman or someone needs to be the man. My advice is to forget about the whole gender thing and look at what qualities everybody can bring to the table.

I want to be on the best team. I don’t need to be on the biggest team; I don’t need to be on the youngest team, the oldest team – any of that, I want to be on the best team. And that, I think, is going to be driven by diversity.

The most diverse team usually wins because they can play strong in a lot of different situations. I think that’s where the food system, not just agriculture, is going to have to be.

How would you encourage more women to get involved?

BELSITO: I like to lead by example. I think people can see how happy I am with the career choices I have made. I hope that my positive attitude and sense of fulfillment can show other women that this is a great industry to be a part of and we can make huge contributions.

BOLIN: In the dairy industry, many women are already involved. I was encouraged through the member relations person at Swiss Valley to get more involved in our Young Cooperator program.

Since then, I have gained dairy friends nationwide. Don’t be afraid to give it a try; you will learn new things. The experiences are amazing and invaluable.

MAYER: Take a seat at the table when you’re asked. Come prepared and be focused. Accept responsibility, look at opportunities and get involved. Don’t wait to be asked either. Raise your hand and be involved.

Becoming a mom was the best thing for me. Raising the next generation is the most important job anyone can have. If I am qualified to shape the next generation, I am qualified to be in a meeting.

How can women support each other?

BELSITO: I think the most important thing for women to remember is that we do in fact need to support our female peers, not compete amongst one another or judge each other. I feel many times women judge each other very harshly.

We need to remember everyone has a reason for who they are and why they do what they do. We should all strive to reach the common goal at work, whatever it may be, and not try to “one up” each other or wait for one another to fail.

BOLIN: Reach out and encourage one another. Be sure to let them know they are doing a good job. Avoid being caught up in the “politics” of the industry and just be you.

MAYER: Raise each other up. Professionals are professionals. That means that we admit mistakes; we look for ways to be better; we get out of bed every day saying “I’m going to give the world my best;” we work as hard as we can, and we don’t leave anything on the field.

Honestly, for me, I see the industry very non-gender. I’ve had to see it that way to persevere through some of the gender biases that were present when I entered the workforce.

I would dress very conservatively, and I think that helped me win because I intentionally didn’t want to draw attention to the way that I looked.

Now, when I work with young women, I am very pointed about how I want them to dress. Be a polished professional. The attention you get should be for your mind.

What can men do to support women looking to hold a leadership role?

BELSITO: I don’t think men need to do anything different to support women than what they do to support men. I want to be treated as an equal. That means I don’t receive any special or different treatment.

I think we should all support one another, respect each other, offer help when we can, maintain a positive working environment and strive to achieve our goals as a team.

BOLIN: My husband and three sons are my biggest allies. My husband respects me and encourages me to do these things, and he and my sons have pitched in extra on the farm to allow me the time to be more involved.

I think whether it is men supporting women or we as women supporting the men, the most important thing is to respect others’ opinions.

One of my favorite quotes about this is: “I’ve come to the conclusion that it is possible for me to respect the people with whom I disagree.”

MAYER: Just look at women as fellow professionals and be secure enough with themselves to embrace diversity. I don’t ever want someone to give me a seat at the table because I’m the token woman. I want to be at the table because I’m good enough to be there. PD


Karen Lee
Progressive Dairyman