Women in Agricultural Commodities

A Conversation with Maryana Yarmolenko Stober

Good morning, Maryana, and welcome to Commodity Conversations. Thank you for taking time out of your vacation to talk with me. First, tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a lawyer with ADM in Rolle, Switzerland.

I come from a small city in the Ternopil Region, Ukraine, and I did my first university degree at the Ivan Franko National University in Lviv. I did my law degree at Lund University in Sweden and then worked in a law firm in Ukraine before joining ADM in Switzerland 13 years ago. I have been working at ADM’s EMEA headquarters in Rolle since then.

What does your current role entail?

I cover various interesting corporate legal issues: M&A, joint ventures, competition, commercial and trade. I manage a team and am the lead lawyer for one of our business units.

Can you give an example of the type of issues you deal with?

As part of my job, I manage legal and trade matters for our leadership team in Ukraine. As you might imagine, the past year and a half has been challenging for me personally and in business. We have had to deal with things we never handled before, from evacuating our people to advising on the rights of refugees in different countries.

We have had to manage our legal issues in Ukraine from a distance, supporting the team members there to find new export routes. We have put in place internal policies on bomb shelters during an attack. All this is entirely new and challenging.

In addition, we have handled Western European matters resulting from the invasion: force majeures and supply chain disruptions. We had to be agile and fast-moving.

I can imagine it’s been quite emotional for you to deal with these professional problems while being Ukrainian.

It’s still emotional, but being Ukrainian gives me insights and knowledge and helps me assess the situation quickly. This inside knowledge of the language, legislation, and culture helps. It is an advantage.

Did you work for ADM in Ukraine before moving to Switzerland?

I worked for ADM for one year in Ukraine on secondment from a Ukrainian law firm, but ADM first employed me directly in Switzerland.

What prompted you to become a lawyer for an agricultural company? Do you have a history of agriculture in the family?

No, not at all. Both my parents are doctors.

I understood that Ukraine plays a significant role in the global agricultural business, and my knowledge and experience could contribute to that. I never specifically wanted to work for an agricultural company; it just happened, and I enjoy it very much.

And why did you become a lawyer?

I was always interested in law. Although I first planned to be a doctor, the legal profession makes you independent much earlier than a doctor. Being a lawyer gave me more international opportunities.

What’s the most challenging thing about your job as a corporate lawyer?

To keep updated and follow the rapidly changing regulatory environment. It’s not only sanctions but also the changing laws on disclosure, sustainability, food, feed, and fuel. On the one hand, we must keep current on these changing regulatory requirements and react before they become valid. On the other hand, we must understand the company’s strategy and how legal requirements can influence strategic decisions. We must keep ahead of things.

What keeps you awake at night?

I sleep well; nothing keeps me awake at night. I try to structure my life so that nothing keeps me awake at night. It is my goal. I must think about my work, family, projects, and hobbies during the day so that when I go to bed, I don’t think about anything anymore.

Let’s move now to WISTA. Could you tell me how and why you became President of WISTA Switzerland?

WISTA stands for the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association. I am president of the Swiss Chapter. WISTA is in over 50 countries and has over 5,000 members globally.

I joined WISTA when I moved to Switzerland and was looking for a professional network. But WISTA is not just a networking organization but an organization with a purpose. When the opportunity arose, I decided to run for president and was elected. I am now in my second term.

I enjoy my role as president. It has taught me a lot about leading a team, approaching issues, and delivering projects with purpose.

What does your role entail?

I work together with the board on strategy. What is our goal, and what will we do this year or maybe in the next couple of years to reach our goal?

I have a public relations function, promoting our association within the sector and communicating with our members.

Are your members individuals or corporations?

Our individual members pay membership fees of CHF 300 per year. More corporations are now joining us as part of their goal to support women in leadership. We have some of the biggest trading houses as members.

We have around 100 members, and our chapter is probably as large as those in larger countries like France, Germany, or Norway.

Now let’s move on to the PWC report on the number of women in the Swiss shipping and trading sector. What prompted you to commission the study?

Together with the board, we agreed that we had to do something more than just networking. We had to make our organization bigger and more impactful.

I searched the Internet and found no benchmark for women in shipping and commodities in Switzerland. The country is a crucial commodity trading hub, and all the commodity trading companies in Switzerland talk about gender equality and the promotion of women to leadership roles. But where were the numbers?

What did the study find?

It found that, on average, women compose about a third of Switzerland’s total shipping and commodity trading workforce and hold around a quarter of senior leadership positions. These are slightly higher than global numbers and suggest the industry is above the Swiss average and ahead of other sectors.

Do you think those figures are representative of the whole sector? And if they are, are you satisfied with them?

It’s a question we discussed in the report. These figures are almost too good to be true. I’m not saying they are incorrect – they are correct. However, we saw that the companies that participated in the survey were those that were most interested in gender equality.

The survey included questions from employees and employers, but it was challenging to get feedback from employers—only companies devoted to the topic filled in the employer side. We will have another project with PWC later this year to dive deeper into the numbers.

If these numbers are correct, are you satisfied with a third of the workforce and a quarter of the senior leadership positions? Or would you aim for 50 / 50?

We would like to aim for higher.

An earlier survey by the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) found that the percentage of women in the shipping industry is 29% worldwide. That number includes seafarers and women on board vessels where there are fewer women than men. Most of the shipping and commodity trading jobs in Switzerland are office jobs. We see no reason why more women could not be in these jobs. So yes, we would like this number to be higher, more than 33% and much closer to 50%.

Did the study cover just French-speaking Switzerland, or was it the whole of Switzerland?

The whole of Switzerland.

PWC didn’t look at pay. Is this something you’re looking at or will look at in the future?

We didn’t look at it for two reasons. First, pay is a sensitive and confidential issue in Switzerland. We felt we would get even fewer responses if we asked direct questions about pay. Second, new legislation in Switzerland will require companies to self-audit and report on pay equality between genders.

However, we did ask about the different perceptions of gender equality. We asked, for example, whether employees felt that women in their workplace were promoted at the same rate as men, were paid the same as men, were given equal opportunities for development and had equal decision-making power.

Individuals, not HR departments, answered these questions, and the perceptions differed between men and women. Only a third of women considered they were paid the same as men at their workplace, but two-thirds of men felt women were. On the perception level, most men thought that employers treated women equally to men in pay and promotions, but most women disagreed.

The PWC survey found a low employee awareness of diversity and inclusion priorities in their companies. I suspect things are changing, but are they changing fast enough?

Things are changing. It’s easier to have a career as a professional woman in this industry than ten or 15 years ago, but it’s not equal yet. Things are changing, but the speed with which they are changing is not good enough. Too slow.

The PWC report mentioned a World Economic Forum estimate that if we continue at the current pace, it will take more than 100 years to close the gender gap.

Many women in our sector work in support functions like operations, HR, and communications; there are few women traders. Why do you think that is?

Women can do trading jobs exactly like men can do them.  At WISTA, we refer to several studies that find that women are not risk-averse; they just tend to face consequences when they take risks.

Modern trading is more around teamwork and networking than in the past. There is less room to make independent risky decisions. Trading has become more structured, meaning women can easily enter trading roles.

Historically, trading was seen as a job that required you to be plugged in all the time – on weekends, evenings, and vacations. Men have more possibilities to do this than women.

Since COVID, trading companies have started to give their employees more flexibility. It’s OK to work from home; it’s almost OK to work part-time, and it’s also OK to switch off during vacation. I believe we will see more women traders with this new normal.

Working from home has become customary since COVID. Companies will lose good people if they are unwilling to give this flexibility.

Now a question close to my heart – something I’m struggling with now. I find it challenging to get women to interview for this project while men ask me to interview them. I don’t understand why men should be so keen and women so shy. Can you help me with that?*

It’s interesting. Maybe it’s because you want to interview people in senior or mid-level positions, where only a quarter are women.

We run a series of events called Sharing is Caring, where we invite a woman CEO, or a senior woman, to talk about her career, achievements, and how she got there. We have had four or five such events in the last twelve months, but it is challenging to find a woman CEO. There aren’t that many of them.

I understand that you struggle to find women for the interviews because we also find it challenging to identify senior women for our events. It’s not that women don’t want to come and share their experiences with other women. They do want to come. We never have a problem when somebody says no, but we have trouble finding them.

In your case, it is also maybe because of how society works – and the education in the last 50 years or so – that women tend to pass on opportunities. Women may feel they must be 100% ready for the interview – to be perfect, more perfect than men. It’s something we talk about a lot at WISTA. Women may feel they don’t have the time to prepare and pass on the opportunity, while men would just take it even if they are not ready.

What new projects are you planning in WISTA to promote the association and women in general in the sector?

As I mentioned, we will dive deeper into the numbers with PwC. We are also working on a virtual reality movie about a woman’s role and her experience on the trading floor. We will invite guests, including men, to put on a virtual reality headset, watch the movie and play the role of a woman in virtual reality on a trading floor.

 What would your 19-year-old self think of you now?

I think she would think I have done well. I think she would be impressed even if she didn’t become a doctor.

What advice would you give to your 19-year-old self?

I would advise her to be braver and bolder than I was – to have the courage to seize opportunities.

What are you most proud of in your life so far?

Proud? Well, I’m proud of my family, husband, and daughter. I am proud of the work we do in WISTA. Incredibly proud. I think we are changing the world a little bit.

I am also proud that my husband and I, along with several friends, have started a charitable foundation in Sweden to send medical equipment and supplies to Ukraine.

How do you envisage your career moving on from here?

I like my legal work, so I would like to develop in this area, to move to the general counsel or the top legal position. But I also see myself moving to a business role. WISTA has taught me that when you have a project or an idea you are passionate about and know how to execute it, you can do great things.

Thank you, Maryana, for your time and input.

© Commodity Conversations® 2023

If you are a woman involved in the agricultural supply chain – and would like to be interviewed for this project – please let me know via either the comment button or LinkedIn.

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