Why Are Strong Female Leaders in Agriculture Fearful of Their Male Employees?

Before the problems with these men came up, I felt so proud to drive tractors and unload heavy trees from trucks.
Publish date:
November 15, 2016
agriculture, workplace harassment, female bosses, Workplace Bullying

I'm a farmer. I worked on a farm where one of the head directors, Lynn*, was so tough she harvested vegetables, managed a farm crew, and fed animals all while having a baby swaddled on her back. The woman I currently work for, Nina*, started her now-thriving organic nursery business with $500 and no outside support. I started working for these women-run businesses with so much pride, integrity, and sense of empowerment that I was shocked by the way they cowered when I reported inappropriate male conduct.

I told Lynn about the male assistant director yelling at our teenage students; how he got so angry that he threw buckets and made a scene. After having several coworkers confide in me about inappropriate remarks he made to them, I told her about how he had been belittling women and young people. She simply didn't respond, despite me addressing the issue in-person. Nothing changed.

I told Nina about a different male coworker — one who I replaced. He had been kicked out of the retail shop but was still allowed to landscape for the company despite regularly cussing out the manager and making crude sexual comments to customers and coworkers. I told her he would come in to harass me about taking his job, saying that he was the only reason I even worked there. She simply told me he was crazy and all I could do was ignore him.

He eventually left, but he now shops at the nursery, where he gets a discount and continues to make backhanded remarks.

When I tried to resolve the issue with Nina, I was “comforted” but not helped. When I decided to ask a public forum about similar problems, everyone in the group said they have no hesitation to ban customers and fire employees who pose any kind of threat to their staff. Instead of this solution, my boss told me I could hide in the back while other female coworkers processed his transactions.

This is not a solution.

I started to ask myself if I was being dramatic. I started to wonder if I was the loud mouth who always had something to say. And I followed their lead. I tolerated the behavior; I went along with the plan and hid. Because despite being strong women, there’s something so comfortable about not taking a stand or causing a problem. There’s something acceptable about being silent.

And isn’t that terrifying?

Before the problems with these men came up, I felt so proud to drive tractors and unload heavy trees from trucks. When I educated younger people about their food system, I felt a connection with another generation. When I taught classes about growing vegetables, I felt the camaraderie between people of all ages and genders who had no need to declare their political beliefs or ideologies because they simply wanted to learn to garden. What a safe place, I thought. A neutral arena where none of the bullshit really matters.

But when an abusive personality type — in this case, a man — comes into your world and actively chooses to damage it, that place feels ruined. And in a work environment — a place where you get paid to exist there and offer your talents — there is no excuse for harassment. Ever. Unfortunately, no work environment can guarantee what treatment you will receive from other employees, but there most certainly should be a promise on how the company will deal with these issues (i.e. no tolerance), even when they get complicated.

Part of the fear in Lynn firing her assistant director was her age. She’s a few steps from retiring and couldn’t handle the thought of starting fresh, of training someone new in the field who could take care of what she no longer had time or energy for.

The irony is that after I quit, I reported his inappropriate behavior directly to him. I told him that he needed to realize how much he was carrying out his personal misery onto his students and fellow farmers. I told him that his actions were poisonous and making our workplace sick. He left the country a few weeks after I quit and never came back. He went to pursue his passion in his home country, I like to think it was because he took my words to heart.

As for Nina, she didn’t want to confront her toxic former employee for fear of blackmail. She thought (and still thinks) that he’s just sick enough to twist being kicked out of her establishment into ammunition. Somehow, she thought he would manipulate the scenario to be her fault and wreck the integrity of the business. He already steals clients, is known for malicious rumors, and strikes up conversation with current employees about the way the business is going to pry into personal matters. What worse could he possibly do? Remember, I’m just hiding in the back office any time he shows up and gets his landscaper’s discount. Who's getting more respect in this situation? Answer: not me.

I know my situation is nowhere near isolated. Even in fields where women are taking the stage, making shit happen, certain men are still walking in and wrecking the joint. In a field like agriculture especially, women are the minority. From finding suitable work clothes made for women who work outdoors, to having to justify physical strength, the industry is already riddled with injustices. The last thing we need is someone coming in to manipulate our chances for success and tear down the integrity we’ve already worked so hard to prove.

So what was the solution to these problems? What is the ideal way to handle an employee who feels violated? You listen. You take into consideration their own fear of reporting something wrong. Take into account how much courage it takes for someone enduring harassment to do what everyone else is calling “tattling.” And do something bold. Fire the harasser from your safe space and let your employees know that you support them.

I don't want these women who I respect to feel belittled by their own indoctrinated fear. Both of these women are in their sixties and were raised in male-dominated households. Despite their determination and progressive ideologies, they function under some deep-seeded sexism that prevents them from protecting their female employees. They too deserve to be empowered by their own abilities and stand up for what’s right. I hope that as women in agriculture — and every other field — we can support one another and ban the forces that keep us from functioning as our best, confident selves.