The quick transformation of what defines today’s consumers and their taste has forced companies from various industries to adapt. The large food sector is not exempt from the huge changes that have occurred, and it has had to implement strategies to anticipate market changes swiftly. It has also incorporated its knowledge on the consumer into decision-making processes and has shown flexibility to adapt to different scenarios, such as what we have been experiencing since early 2020. One of the key elements that has enriched the industry outlook is the incorporation of women into positions of responsibility and other relevant tasks. Thus, aiming for an equal presence of women and men in various roles has contributed decisively and structurally to the daily work in production, management, logistics and other areas, making the workplace more competitive and productive while promoting a culture of joint responsibility.
The white meat industry is not an exception. In an interview with ChileCarne, nine women talk about their experiences, their achievements, and what it means for them to defy stereotypes and work in a field that used to be male-dominated.
Maxagro: a company that promotes women’s growth and advancement
Elizabeth Ellmen, Maxagro’s Sustainability Manager, joined the company in 2014 when she was six months pregnant. Since the very beginning, she was able to see that the company demonstrated true concern over recognizing and promoting the work and advancement of women. “It made me feel very welcome, not only because it is unusual in Chile but also because it happened in a male-dominated sector,” she says.
Ellmen explains that she had worked in male-dominated environments before and her experience had been positive. She also says the key lies in training and the ability to adapt to different teams and approaches to make the job more enriching. “In my case, as I was filling a new position, I was able to innovate and leave my mark on the work in this area. At Maxagro, you can develop and implement new ideas, which gives you room to grow”, she says.
Talking about her role in the company, she says that the Sustainability Department is in charge of key aspects for the company to have relevance over time. “At Maxagro, we see sustainability as the harmonization of economic, social, and environmental aspects while contributing to a healthy, conscious, and proactive industry when it comes to the challenges we face as we move forward as a country.”
Regarding Maxagro’s concrete measures for the advancement of women, Elizabeth says the company offers the staff many opportunities in various areas, leaving behind the idea of the company being part of a 100% male-sector. “For example, we see more and more women in maternity barns and productive areas of the slaughter plant. This is due to women’s unique contribution thanks to their attention to details, commitment, and empathy,” she concludes.
In turn, Marisol Mena has been with the company for 13 years in the Foreign Trade area that reports to the Business area. She says it has been an extraordinary experience that has allowed her to grow exponentially, which makes her very proud. Mena says it has not been hard for her to work in an industry where most workers are men, “I just focus on being professional,” she says, and adds that “having contact with the outside world is priceless. You reach the whole world through this industry. We are a BRC, ISO and HACCP certified company, which opens up a world of possibilities for our products. Meeting new people, their cultures, speaking other languages, it is just fascinating,” Mena points out.
She adds that “Maxagro is an exporting company and this is why I think the contribution of the Foreign Trade team is key. You need precise coordination with logistics, to consider a lot of information, regulate times precisely, and provide full customer satisfaction. Foreign trade is synonymous with service, not just for customers but also for other areas of the company. If we provide good service and clients are satisfied, they will want to remain our clients. However, I am convinced it is not about individual areas but about seeing ourselves as one company and thus, we all achieve the final goal, which is to stay relevant in the market and continue to grow regardless of being a man or woman, treating each other with respect.”
Agrosuper: creating opportunities for female leaders in the food sector
At Agrosuper, women have been gaining ground in various positions. Camila Campos is one example: the first woman to lead a department in one of the company’s industrial plants. It is a great achievement not only because she is a woman but also because of her age. At 28, she took on a leadership role in the production area and later, in January 2020, she took over the position she still holds today. She is in charge of a team of 750 operators, approximately 850 people in the entire plant, a source of pride for herself and her short ascending career. She also feels committed to and happy with the opportunities Agrosuper has offered her. A chemical civil engineer, she started working in the mining industry, “an extremely sexist sector,” as she puts it, but she also says it gave her opportunities to learn and become the professional she is today.
“When I joined Agrosuper, there were few women. My previous work experience taught me how to deal with people, instill mutual respect, have the ability and the courage to stand up strong and capable because of my position and my abilities rather than my gender,” she says. Campos stresses that the company is fair to men and women and she thinks that is rewarding “because it gives you the opportunity to show your skills, willingness, drive, and qualities both professionally and personally regardless of gender,” she says. “One of the things I cherish the most is that Agrosuper gives you the autonomy to make decisions. That way you learn to make mistakes, correct them, and in time take on new challenges and make bigger decisions.”
According to Camila, the friendly work environment of camaraderie and respect is a value held deep in Agrosuper’s DNA. “We all greet everybody and we know each other, but my team also knows there is a certain hierarchy that must be respected when working,” she says and stresses: “I hope women like myself and all of those who work in the industry serve as an example, open new spaces and contribute different views. I always try to include women in my team and give them the opportunity to grow. At the end of the day, the results and the person are what matter, not gender. Hopefully, this will become more common over time.”
Marcia Vilches worked at Agrosuper for a little while. She then followed a different path but resumed her career in the company as Exports Supervisor in 2015. “They didn’t ask me if I wanted to be a supervisor; they said, ‘you are going to be one.’ At first, I felt like a guinea pig and I learned little by little along the way,” she recalls. Her experience, like many women who work in the white meat industry, has been extremely enriching. “You come to a place full of dreams, and the first time I got more than I expected. I believe that regardless of gender, what matters most is how you approach your work. Agrosuper has allowed me to be with my family and fulfill myself professionally,” she says.
In Vilches’ opinion, respect is the key in any sector or relationship, whether private or professional, and regardless of the number of years a person has been working for a company. “I did not start working at Agrosuper as a supervisor and the possibilities did not just open up to me because I wanted them to, but rather because they valued my work. So, I suppose I was not doing everything wrong, because I am still here,” she says jokingly.
Currently, Marcia works directly with eight supervisors. She is the only woman. She admits being nervous when she started, “sometimes you don’t believe in your abilities. There are always people watching your work, but it is up to us to open the path for other women and that’s how it has been.”
She also stresses that a person’s technical knowledge goes a long way in this line of work. “For example, I first worked in the quality area. That gave me the technical knowledge clients needed about some products, and also knowledge about pig anatomy, which is something you gain over time. You already know each market and each customer, but the industry keeps growing and you never stop learning, but undoubtedly, success is achieved through preparation.”
Coexca: a place where skills, feedback and mutual respect are promoted
Cristina Herrera comes from a different background: “I came from a similar industry, the baking industry, where there are much more men than women.” She sees herself as a worker who adapts to anything and is capable of doing different jobs. In her opinion, it has helped her move within the company as well as advance her career. At first, Cristina was in charge of the company’s cafeteria, then she joined the Coexca farm where she went from operator, to line manager, and then product supervisor. That is the position she holds today and she leads a team of 28 people. Her daily work consists of checking that entry products come out in optimal condition, i.e., with no bones or cartilage for example, verifying the color, temperature, conditions of the packaging, etc.
“We also work with frozen products, “sliced” we call them. In these processes, we must make sure everything is in order. Products for exports must be sent out with no issues whatsoever,” she says and reflects: “women in general have the ability to be meticulous, neat, and attentive to details, qualities needed to obtain high-quality products for exports.” In her case, that is mainly for Japan and South Korea. In her 11 years at Coexca, Cristina says she has learned, trained, and been part of great work teams from whom she got useful feedback. Despite her strong character, as she herself describes it, she feels the treatment is fair and correct.
Another interesting case is that of Elizabeth Muñoz, a Business Engineer who began her pre-internship at Coexca in 2012, in Human Resources. In May of that same year, she was recruited for a project in the Inventories Department, specifically in Management Control. Since 2020, Elizabeth has been in charge of Balanceados Coexca, an associated company that produces pig feed.
“When I started, I never thought I was going to stay in the company for so long, almost 9 years now. The important thing is that I did not stay in one position, I have grown and moved between areas, which has been very challenging and motivating. I have been able to train, they allow us to study certificates and courses to update our knowledge. I believe you cannot just settle for what you learned at university. We already know the world is always changing, and thus business as well. This is why you need to adapt to those changes,” she highlights.
In her opinion, learning is crucial in a first-class exporting industry. “You can learn a lot from the relationship with other countries, like the way they work. There are very helpful lessons.” Talking about the industry, she thinks “there is a transparent and close-knit organizational culture among everyone involved in the industry, the associated companies, and ChileCarne. They are all ready to move forward as a country and as a pork industry.”
She adds that the company’s beliefs and actions have evolved, because the intelligence and contribution of women in the food industry, and meat in particular, has been strengthened and diversified, which ultimately nurtures any space.
AASA: a source of opportunities for the growth of its female workers
Joelsi Vásquez is from Venezuela and she came to AASA 4.5 years ago after just six months of living in Chile. She started and still works as Manager of Agronomical and Fertigation Management at the company’s farms.
She says she is very proud. “Working for the Department of Management and Projects, I actively participate in the development, rollout, and continuous supervision of projects for the proper management and disposal of the slurry generated at the farms. After going through a treatment system, slurry is sent to neighboring farms through our irrigation systems to be applied to various crops, thus taking advantage of the nutritional potential of slurry as a fertilizer. This is an important contribution to one of the company’s goals: circular economy.”
When she decided to study Agricultural Engineering, she knew she was going to work in a predominantly male environment. At first, she was worried it might be hard or even impossible to work in the field as she does today “because job offers for women in these positions are limited. However, as time went by, I realized how fortunate I am to be able to work in an industry with so much room for growth, training, and where there are many interesting areas in which women can perform and excel at the same level as men.”
Joelsi explained that today there are women working in various areas, something that was not common before. “There are women who work directly with the pigs in the sheds, in the management and commercial areas, in the slaughter plants, and, as it is in my case, in the project and environment area. The fact that the company gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that we have the same capabilities, gives us space for our optimal growth,” she concludes.
Patricia Acevedo also works at the company. She says that she has known since the very beginning that as a woman, she needed to study harder and be more responsible to be taken into consideration. “At first, it was difficult in this sector, also because as a young woman, I started in plants where operators were old-fashioned, so I had to earn credibility with technical knowledge, mutual respect, and patience. In time, being a woman became secondary. What’s important is to value the work of each team member and contribute your technical knowledge and experience until the time comes when you become part of the team.”
Patricia has been working for AASA for about 3.5 years, and is a veterinary doctor specialized in quality assurance systems and legal requirements to export food to relevant markets for the livestock industry. She joined the company for a specific task: to advise them in obtaining the authorization to export to China. Now, she is hired as a full-time employee.
Talking about the challenges of changing, she says, “You must stay up-to-date on various technical issues, regulations from the Chilean and the destination markets, new technologies, etc. It is a very dynamic sector that is constantly adding improvements to the process and frequently under scrutiny, every time we are audited by various health authorities.”
She highlighted that “more and more women are joining the company, from handlers in production to managers. Currently, two women in AASA are heads of departments, Human Resources, and myself. At the company level, women have also joined the areas of animal production and exports, for example, and they all stand out for their skills, abilities, and commitment to their respective positions and the company in general.”
ChileCarne: a diverse mix
The Chilean Meat Exporters’ Association, ChileCarne also has examples of women in leadership positions. One of them is Daniela Álvarez, Head of Sustainability, who has been in the Association for 15 years, always working on sustainability issues. Her time at ChileCarne has been a fruitful and interesting experience that has allowed her to learn about the world of pork and poultry production, a relevant sector for the Chilean economy, not only because it constitutes an important source of employment but also because the sector has grown immensely in terms of sustainability over the past 15 years in all of its operations.
Currently, her role is to collaborate in the construction and implementation of a sustainability roadmap for companies in line with the sector goals. These goals originated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are global targets for countries worldwide. Also, she and her team are always monitoring actions and communicating results to the various stakeholders to showcase the work done by Chilean companies related to the white meat sector.
“The experience has been great, the strong commitment to do things right, the recognition, the possibility to grow professionally, and work with a great team. It all made these 15 years fly by and there are always new and exciting challenges,” she says.
In her view, the situation in the past 15 years has changed quite a lot in different areas: “at the beginning, there were plenty of men at work, but in recent years that has been changing, and I have witnessed the incorporation of the female workforce into this area. It got to a point where in some meetings or topics, sometimes there are more women than men. It is a great contribution to diversity that I think is headed in the right direction. In nature, more diverse systems are always more prolific and more resilient over the long term.”
In addition, she thinks ChileCarne, as well as many Chilean companies, have had the ability to be more flexible and improve aspects related to women, such as maternity protection, incorporation of women into high-quality jobs, labor mobility, and the possibility to take part in the decision-making of the companies. “We have seen this trend for some years now, and fortunately there are clear policies at the national and international level that are useful, as they provide a guide on how to act and which way to go. This is why it is so important for companies to have clear action frameworks in all issues, including gender diversity,” she concludes.