International Women’s Day 2022

For us, For Women By Women means women supporting women. It means standing up, speaking up and connecting with our community to amplify the things that matter to them, every day.

On the occasion — and in the spirit — of International Women’s Day, we wanted to shine the spotlight on another organisation that we believe stands for the same: Wincott—  Women in Cotton.

In Australia, one in four cotton farmers are women. And a new generation of women is confidently stepping into the industry every year, supported, encouraged and championed by the work of Wincott.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we asked Wincott members about their lives, their work and how they are helping to “Break the Bias”, today and every day.

Alisha Reading works with her fiancé Matt, on his family’s cotton farm in Toobeah, Queensland.

Their back fence line is the McIntyre River on the NSW border, and as we spoke to her, Alisha and her family were surrounded by water— although she admits it is nothing compared to the floods of last winter.

 “We were flooded in for five weeks then,” she says. “We had to rely on the local council to drop supplies for our family and staff.”

Gail Spargo, a Researcher and Wincott Chairwoman, is also based in Queensland, 270km inland of Rockhampton.

“We would like some rain here,” she says. “Our dam is down around 23 per cent which means our farmers are facing another dry period.”

For those of us lucky enough to only experience the devastation of floods and droughts through our television screens, it’s hard to understand the true impact it has on families in the farming community — which is where Wincott comes in.

“Women are sometimes forgotten on the farms, especially during tough times like drought and flood,” says Alisha. “Even though they are often the ones holding the family together.”

“Wincott provides us with that sense of community,” she says. “We can understand each other because a lot of us are in the same situation.

“Wincott also highlights and supports the important and diverse roles we play in the industry.”

Gail adds that women can also experience the stress of these events very differently.

“Often, they are thinking about their job, but also how it’s affecting their children or partner, and how it’s affecting their wider community, because in smaller regions, women are often on multiple committees, so it impacts every aspect of their life.”

Established in December 2000 to help develop knowledge, opportunities and learning, Wincott connects and empowers women in every aspect of the Australian cotton industry. Incredibly, the organisation functions thanks to the dedication of a group of volunteers, geographically spread across the cotton industry, and the country.

“Our mission is to keep communication open,” says Gail, who grew up on a cropping and sheep farm in New South Wales’ Riverina region, before going on to study biological science.

“Our network meetings are quite social, because sometimes that is all you need,” she says. “Just to reconnect with people, have a conversation, offload, de-stress and be with other people who are going through the same things, but also have a chance to talk about something other than the drought or Covid, or your inability to get phone service or a Dr’s appointment,” Gail says.

For Alisha, who grew up on a hobby farm in Gunnedah and worked in finance before working alongside her fiancé on the family farm, the lack of connection is something she sees a lot of women in the industry struggle with.

“Obviously the past two years have been difficult for everybody, and Covid has made the whole world an isolated place. But that sense of isolation is ongoing for a lot of women in farming,” she says.

“You can miss out on a lot of connection. For example, being out here and being a first-time mother, you probably don’t have a regular mother’s group, or if you do, you are travelling 160km to attend it with a baby.”

“You need the support from each other; to have the sisterhood behind you. That’s what Wincott is really about; bringing women together and encouraging each other to be their best.”

Gail agrees that combatting isolation is a key commitment of Wincott.

“Some of our women are very isolated, not just from towns and services, but other people,” she says.

“Their farms are quite big and they might go weeks without seeing anyone else but family. On top of that, they don’t have reliable internet. In some places, they don’t even have reliable phone service.”

“For Wincott, we try to have face-to-face events, because you need that contact for women that aren’t getting it regularly.”

This August will finally see Wincott’s first in-person event, post-Covid, at the biannual Australian Cotton Conference Ladies’ Luncheon.  This event brings together a diverse group of women from all over the industry including farmers and researchers, ginners and agronomists.

“Women in cotton are diverse in terms of their roles, and we are also spread out geographically,” says Gail.

“With cotton farming on both sides of the New South Wales and Queensland border, and a lot of border families who sometimes have kids at boarding school in a different state, it’s been a tough couple of years with Covid and the border closures, so it’s particularly exciting to bring everyone together,” she says.

As well as uniting women in cotton across the country, Wincott are also committed to highlighting the contributions of women in the industry. And as grass —or cotton— root campaigners for “breaking the bias”, Wincott are fiercely encouraging a new generation of girls to enter farming, as well as injecting new ideas and perspectives into the industry.

“We want to encourage a future that sees more daughters run the farm and take up leadership positions, not always the sons,” says Alisha.

“We want to give her the support to say, ‘You can do it, too’. Just because you are a girl, doesn’t mean you can’t. You can. We’ll help you do it,” she says.

Gail says Wincott is passionate about encouraging personal growth beyond the paddocks too, developing business skills and influence as community members.

“We like to promote our women to become leaders, not just in the cotton industry, but within their communities, in their groups, in their businesses,” she says.

Outdated and traditional ways of thinking is another ceiling Wincott are determined to shatter.

“There can be a perception that Wincott is about tea and scones, which it’s absolutely not… it would be nice to have more tea and scones, actually.” Alisha laughs.

“The women in Wincott are not just farmers’ wives; we are about encouraging a diversity of women whatever their role and whatever their backgrounds.” she says.

“There are agronomists, researchers, there’s women that work on farms, in industry organisations and in business and we are a great reflection of the diversity of women in the cotton industry and agriculture as a whole.”

“We don’t just sit at home and make sure the men get their smoko, those notions of women in agriculture have no place in the Australian cotton industry. We do way more than that. And Wincott is about highlighting and celebrating all that women contribute.”

Gail agrees that challenging perceptions of rural women and their contribution to agriculture is key to moving the industry forward.

“When you say ‘farmer’, everyone automatically thinks of a man. We need to change that underlying perception and also the expectation of what women should and shouldn’t be doing in the industry,” she says.

“Women in farming, and the fringe industries around farming, can be leaders, can be supporters, can be businesswomen, can be family-orientated. You don’t have to be all of them, but you can be any of them.”

Alisha says she has also sometimes felt pigeonholed as a ‘farmer’s wife.

“I am engaged to a farmer, but I’m also integral to the running of the farm. I’m not sitting in the tractor so much, but I am doing office work and budgets, escorting machinery between properties, doing runs for spare parts in town and occasionally, well often, I’m pulling my fiancé Matt out when he is bogged — he seems to be really good at getting bogged,” she laughs.

“We are a team here; we can’t run the farm and do our jobs without each other.”

With leaders and role-models like Gail and Alisha, and the support of Wincott, it seems inevitable that the Australian cotton industry will continue to break the bias and lead the way for a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world for women.

For more information on Wincott, you can follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WincottWomenInCotton

For more information about Australian cotton please visit www.cottonaustralia.com.au

Images supplied by Alisha Reading. For more information visit  www.thefarmersfriendphotography.com.au or follow @the_farmers_friend on Instagram.

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