By Samantha Smith, Oklahoma Agricultural Cooperative Council
Audrey Hofferber began her career in the cooperative system 1993 as an office assistant at Hooker Equity Exchange in Hooker, Oklahoma. Now, more than twenty years later, she is one of the few females in Oklahoma to reach the top level of leadership in the cooperative system.
Growing up in agriculture, Hofferber was exposed to the cooperative system at a young age. Farming and ranching was her way of life growing up, and a career in the agricultural sector made sense to the native Coloradan.
After years of working as an office assistant in the co-op, Hofferber was promoted to Chief Financial Officer for the company. It was there that she found her love of numbers and learning how the cooperative ran. While she loved her job as CFO, she found herself wanting more.
“I wanted to be a general manager,” Hofferber said, “I just never felt like I had enough knowledge or the confidence in myself that I really needed to step up and apply for the position.”
But her former supervisor thought otherwise. In June of 2011, Hofferber reached her goal when she accepted the job as CEO of Texhoma Wheat Growers, a full-service co-op located on the Oklahoma-Texas line in the iconic Oklahoma Pandhandle.
But reaching this goal has not proven easy for women across the state and nation. Only a handful of females hold general manager positions at cooperatives in Oklahoma.
“I don’t think the ag world has completely accepted women,” Hofferber said. “I don’t think the industry as a whole has become comfortable with women working in agriculture.”
With 98 percent of Texhoma Wheat Growers’ customers being male, it took awhile to gain her customer base’s trust when she started as a general manager, Hofferber said.
“It took me a long time, but once I really gained that trust with my customers, they came to me for everything,” she said. “I’m not one who sits back and watches. I dive in. I fix the fuel pumps. I load feed and chemicals. I interact with my customers quite a bit to earn their trust, and soon they figured out the knowledge I bring to the position.”
Gaining that trust with customers seems to come a little easier to her male counterparts though, she said.
“It just seems like no matter where you go, we as females have to start at the bottom building that trust level where a male instantly has that trust level handed to him,” Hofferber said.
Tonya Meyers, CEO of Farmers Cooperative Association in Snyder, Oklahoma, is another one of the women breaking through the glass ceiling, but she says she doesn’t feel like she’s treated any differently than her male counterparts.
“I am the lone woman in a man’s world at all the meetings I go to,” Meyers said, “but none of the men have ever made me feel like I didn’t belong. I just tell them that I’m no different from anybody else. They shouldn’t feel like they have to treat me special.”
Hofferber and Meyers, like any other managers at cooperatives, are governed by a board of directors made up of their co-ops member producers. The managers run the day-to-day operation, while the board is responsible for approving major strategic and financial decisions of the co-op while monitoring and partnering with the CEO.
Phil Kenkel, Bill Fitzwater Cooperative Chair at Oklahoma State University, published a paper with the CHS Center for Cooperative Growth in 2015 looking at the need for board diversity in agricultural cooperatives across the nation.
Lack of gender diversity, he said, is not uncommon in cooperatives, especially when it comes to cooperative boards of directors.
“Females make up just over 3 percent of board members in agricultural cooperatives, the lowest representation of any cooperative sector,” Kenkel said in his paper. “The general finding is that agricultural cooperatives clearly trail other cooperative sectors and investor-owned firms in board gender diversity.”
Ag cooperatives are not the only co-ops who are behind the curve when it comes to gender diversity on their boards. Mutual insurance cooperatives have an average of 6.4 percent of their boards made up by females, followed by Farm Credit boards at 7.2 percent and rural electric boards at 8.9 percent.
Female board members, Kenkel said, can bring a whole new perspective to the board room, resulting in finding new ways to solve problems.
“Women have always been important team members in farm operations, yet the agricultural cooperatives with which they do business have not historically included them in leadership roles,” Kenkel said. “Women also make up a significant portion of the cooperative workforce, and female representation on the board gives those employees a greater sense of connection with the cooperative and improves the perception of career path.”
Hofferber says electing female cooperative members to the board is accompanied by a number of benefits in the board room.
“Women just have a different outlook on things and a different way of approaching things,” Hofferber said. “Women would have a lot to offer the board if they were just given the chance to serve on them.”
Meyers said females bring an attention to detail to the board room that an all-male board is sometimes lacking, but nominating a woman to the board has not been an easy task to accomplish.
“I believe women are a lot more detail oriented and look further into problems,” Meyers said. “We have to convince our members that we can nominate them. It’s just the mentality that our members have right now – when they think of a farmer, they don’t think of a woman. But I think female board members would be a benefit if we could get someone to be nominated. It just seems to be hard to do that.”
Although gender diversity is a new topic to the co-op system, Hofferber is optimistic that change and acceptance is on the horizon.
“I think women have to know that the glass ceiling is there, and you have to be able to accept that it’s there and pursue on,” Hofferber said. “We are making progress. I would like to see more progress made, but we are getting there slowly but surely.”
Meyers agrees with the progress.
“I feel like there was progress made when I was hired,” she said. “I’m confident we will get to a point where co-op women aren’t a rarity.”