Despite growing up on a farm, living a life on the land was not high on the list of priorities for Fiona Simson when she was a teenager. Ironically today, she’s not only a farmer for her in her “day job”, but she represents the interests of tens of thousands of people in agriculture throughout Australia.
As a child, Simson, who is now President of the National Farmers Federation, wanted a career away from agriculture, as many country children do. After completing secondary school, she moved away to university then travelled the world.
Simson worked in Canberra in workplace training, however it was meeting and falling in love with her husband, who was a farmer, that drew her back to farming. The couple moved to a farm in the NSW Liverpool Plains “in the middle of nowhere”.
Simson had spent years farming and raising her children when she was approached by friends in farming living 50 kilometres away in 2006. BHP had planned an exploration in the area, and the lack of community engagement and potential damage to their properties had enraged local farmers. Simson, concerned about the lack of consultation, agreed to be a spokesperson for the farmers.
“As we got more engaged in the process, I got more incensed that farmers were not even considered in terms of the process.”
Her foray into advocacy in 2006 gave Simson a taste for “being a voice” for rural people. She became a counsellor in local government and later became the first female president of the President of the NSW Farmers Federation. Simson held that position for four years before becoming the President of the National Farmers Federation.
“While I started local…I realised quickly the need for really good policy in the ag space,” she said. “It started with me going along to all the conferences that my husband had previously been going to and it grew from there. I try to put myself forward things that I am passionate about – I try to overlook the fact that I might be uncomfortable about doing them, but see that they are important.”
One thing Simson is very passionate about is creating more of a gender balance in agriculture, particularly in management roles. As a leader who is often “the only woman in the room”, it’s about having open conversations with both women and men about considering women for roles and mentoring them along the way.
Currently women comprise about 41 per cent of the workforce in agriculture, according to the NFF, but just 18 per cent of managers in the sector are women. Just 2.3 per cent of CEO roles in agriculture are held by women, compared to about 17 per cent in other industries.
“We still have a long way to go, but there is a huge opportunity here,” she said. “We want to achieve gender parody and double the number of women by 2030.”
“In each role I’ve had I’ve tried to look at women’s representation and enhance that. It’s important as women that we raise up other women and support them,” Simson says.
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