Gender equality: Why British agriculture is in need of a culture change
With gender equality in the workplace rising up the agenda, Christine Tacon spoke to Olivia Midgley about why she thinks agriculture is in need of a culture change.
Throughout her 40 years in business, Christine Tacon has enjoyed senior roles at some of the world’s biggest companies, including Mars, Vodafone and Anchor/Fonterra.
She is also renowned for spearheading the transformation of Co-operative Farms, taking the business from a £6 million loss, to a £6m profit. The business was later sold to the Wellcome Trust for £249m in 2014.
Now, alongside her role as Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA), she helps other women negotiate the world of business, specifically in food and agriculture.
Drawing on her family’s own experience has been a key driver. Her mother, probably driven by the shortage of food in the post-World War Two years, wanted to work in agriculture and joined the Land Army before taking her agricultural degree. She worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, advising dairy farmers on how to increase milk yields. But that work soon came to an end when she married Christine’s father at the age of 29.
Mrs Tacon said: “She had to give up her job, because the civil service expected women to resign on marriage. Unbelievably, that rule existed in the Foreign Office until 1973.
“Listening to her made me determined I was not going to choose between work and family. And certainly I was not going to have someone else make that decision for me.”
Mrs Tacon was drawn to science and engineering and worked for various companies while working her way up to director level.
While sexism was, at times, present in the workplace – she was once told to wear a skirt instead of jeans while working in a high precision zinc die casting factory – she does not feel her gender has ever been a barrier.
She said: “I resolved that I did not want to change the person I was to fit in. We need women at senior levels to change the dynamic, not to become men in skirts. Coming at the job in a different way is what diversity is all about.”
When Mrs Tacon had her first child she was the only female director of global firm Redland. The company had to introduce a maternity package especially for her.
“Nowadays there is a more generous statutory maternity pay policy and many businesses have policies that go further than this. How things have changed in two generations, from losing your job if you married to shared paternity leave,” she added.
Mrs Tacon feels ‘lucky’ to have been confident in her own ability and was always happy to challenge the way things were done. Even when working in large multinational businesses, she succeeded in effecting change.
“I never considered that I had been disadvantaged throughout my career due to being female,” she added.
“On the contrary; I think I have often been noticed for being a competent female.”
It is an attitude she has brought to her most recent role as GCA.
As the Government’s regulator, she has the power to investigate code breaches and fine up to 1 per cent of turnover – £0.5 billion for a retailer such as Tesco.
Rather than using a ‘big stick’, she said she has always taken a measured and business-like, collaborative approach.
“There could, of course, be some correlation here that women prefer non-confrontational styles. I have only done two investigations in five and-a-half years,” she said.
“But I have achieved significant change through what I deemed as a collaborative approach working with the supermarkets I regulate. I showed them how I wanted them to change rather than trying to catch them out.”
In the future, Mrs Tacon thinks some businesses may need a shift in culture in order to support women – and that will take time.
She said: “The culture needs to change. But it will not change overnight. The law is on our side, but we all have to help make baby steps of progress, nudging business forwards.”
Mrs Tacon believes nurturing new talent is important. She runs the Women in Food and Farming group, which helps members develop skills and knowledge in what is still a male dominated industry.
She also chairs MDS, a not-for profit business which recruits and trains graduates in the food sector, many of them young women.
But she also admits to have been ‘gender blind’ in the past and even declined invitations to join groups to promote women.
“I wanted to be accepted for what I did, not because I was female. But I now believe that was an arrogant approach. Just because I had the confidence to be myself in a man’s world, does not mean that everyone shares that same confidence.”