International Women’s Day (IWD) is a pivotal date in the calendar of the women’s rights movement. Celebrated each year on 8 March, IWD commemorates women’s achievements, helps raise awareness about women’s equality, and provides occasion to lobby for accelerated gender parity. 

This year, the United Nations, which began marking IWD in 1975, chose the theme “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. In a moment of serendipity,  this coincides with the appointment of Elmé Coetzer-Boersma as one of three managing directors at GLOBALG.A.P. as of 1 January, 2021. Educated in both South Africa and the United States of America, ElméCoetzer-Boersma holds a Ph. D. in agronomy and has had a varied career within the food and farming industries. 
 
According to the 2017 US census of agriculture, around 1.3 million farmers in the USA are women, representing about a third of all agricultural workers in the nation. Often perceived as a male-dominated sector, farming is finally shaking off that “masculine” reputation and becoming a more welcoming workplace for women. While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in the battle for equality, and it is leadership figures such as ElméCoetzer-Boersma who are paving the way and setting an example for other women working in the agricultural sector. 
 
In this interview, ElméCoetzer-Boersma answers a few questions on her career in agriculture and her views on gender equality.

Tell us about your story and your professional/personal background. How did your journey at GLOBALG.A.P. begin? 
 
I started my studies at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, in the field of horticulture and then moved on to do a master’s degree in agronomy, also at the University of Pretoria. Through a Fulbright scholarship, I was fortunate to be able to complete my PhD at the prestigious Kansas State University, USA, focusing on herbicide physiology. I returned to South Africa to work at the University of Pretoria, and then I entered the world of food safety and food quality, conducting food safety audits for local and international certification bodies and retailers. 

At QC Fresh, I also helped organize conferences for the fresh produce industry in South Africa. Kristian Moeller was a guest speaker at several of these, and this is where my journey started at GLOBALG.A.P., or EUREPGAP as it was called at the time. I started with some freelance tasks until I was offered a position as trainer/technical expert in October 2003. I have worked my way up in the company over the last 18 years until my recent promotion to co–managing director, alongside Kristian Moeller and Markus Philipp. 

How did you become one of the few women leadersin this sector, and how do you see your role there?

Hard work, dedication, loyalty, and integrity, I believe, brought me to this point. It is not that I foresaw or anticipated this path in my career, because I think if it had been my ultimate goal to become a managing director of a company, I would have chosen a different company which had a fast track and many opportunities for moving up the internal hierarchy. I chose GLOBALG.A.P. for the work that we do, for the challenges the primary production industry faces on a global scale,and for the many opportunities it allowed me to grow – from working from South Africa to traveling the globe to offer trainings, attend meetings, and meet and collaborate with so many accomplished professionals in the industry. 

During your career, have you experienced anymajor obstacles, or difficult situations to overcome? 

Everyone goes through obstacles in life, and I am no different. There are times that you wonder about certain decisions that are made and why you are left out, but then you have to train yourself to be assertive and believe in yourself. As I said, my goal in life is not title- or position-driven but rather to do the right thing and be the best me. If I were totally career-focused, I am sure it would have been much harder for me. My personal goals were and still are to diversify as much as possible while keeping my focus on my role and expertise. What does that mean? It means that by training a scientific person with technical background, I am focusing on the technical side of what GLOBALG.A.P. does. This will not change, but within that framework I want to expand my knowledge of sustainability, circular economy, and how information technology can assist in all of this. 

How do you personally see the role of women in leadership in general?

I think women have a lot to offer. I am convinced that women leaders emphasize teamwork and overall spend more time on coaching their team than their male colleagues do. Because it is sometimes more difficult to be heard, it is important that women in key roles communicate clearly, express their expectations, and always be authentic. 

As a woman in a leadership position, what do you think about gender equality in leadership? How do you experience it and is there anything you wish for, such as a more equal future?

I am not a typical feminist, but I do not like any kind of inequality. I do not care who or what the person is, as long as they are the best option for a specific role. So yes, I detest discrimination against women as much as I do any other kind of discrimination. I’ll stick to the work situation and professional life side of the gender issues, and there I believe men and women should get the same opportunities and where a function was traditionally filled by a man, it does not mean it cannot be filled by a woman. If there is a woman that can do the job, why not? There will be difficulties in some industries to adapt – women need to brace themselves when entering such situations and be willing to participate in the transformation.  

Photo: GLOBLALG.A.P.
left: Elmé Coetzer-Boersma, Managing Director GLOBLALG.A.P., right: Manal Saleh, General Manager Blue Moon Ltd., Egypt