Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Dr Kirstie McAdoo, Head Of Education And Research
Kirstie McAdoo is the Head of Education at Airfield Estate.
I first met Dr Kirstie McAdoo at one of Airfield‘s now defunct food talks. Ireland being Ireland, the event was organised by none other than Ailish Cantwell. I do love it when the women I feature in this series have collaborated together.
Anyway, here’s Kirstie McAdoo, on a small stage, in a big tent talking about how people shop for food and how we are often influenced by how things are presented in supermarket. I remember learning that day, that we shop at eye level and that is the prime real estate in the supermarket shelf hierarchy. For some reason, that really stayed with me.
If you get the pleasure of meeting Dr McAdoo, you will have the joy of her booming laugh and the priviledge of hearing an expert in her field. It is refreshing to see a confident woman, speak of what she knows best with obvious pleasure.
I’m looking forward to keep on getting educated by Kirstie. Her work at Airfield is phenomenal and I look forward to seeing her in more publications.
I’m talking to women in the food industry, what brought you into this category and what do you do?
I’m a complete South Dublin urbanite and stumbled into food and food production because of secondary school. I did Agricultural Science for the Leaving and LOVED it (despite being the only girl in the class). I then went on to study Animal Science in UCD and followed that with a PhD in Climate change and Animal Nutrition. During that stage of research I got to teach undergrads and I ended up completing a teaching diploma in Trinity. I taught at second level for a few years and then the job of Farm Manager came up at Airfield as it was reopening after its redevelopment, (It was quite a nice circle actually as I’d grown up in the locality and completed some of my undergrad internship on the original Airfield Estate about 10 years previously).
After about a year as Farm Manager the opportunity of Head of Education came up and I moved into that role. I’m now Head of Education and Research at Airfield Estate and part of the senior management team. This means I get to speak to people on a daily basis about their food and their experiences and understanding of it. Our mission at Airfield Estate is to inspire and enable people to make better food choices (better for themselves, their pocket and the planet), so I get to create programmes for all ages and facilitate research around all aspects of food. I get to interact with the public, government, industry and the public as well as lecture and research everything that relates to food, its sustainability and production. It’s a great job and love getting people excited about their food and questioning it. Once I see a face in a state of consternation – I’m really happy because it means that I’m stretching someone’s knowledge and causing them to question something that they have known or believed without questioning.
How does your career fulfil you?
I was only thinking about this the other day! I love to talk, I have strong opinions, I am so SO passionate about the dissemination of science into the everyday, and I enjoy pushing people to question what they think is normal (AND I get to work with animals!). So for all of those reasons this job fulfils me. But I have to say it’s mostly the fact that I get to use my talents (which are pretty diverse) to explain the everyday aspects of their life around food and farming in a way they haven’t thought of before. I really do love just chatting to people and seeing them learn something new or question something they thought they knew or share their information with me to – every day is a learning day for everyone! We’ve all got to be open to new opinions, ideas and knowledge – and for our own to change over time, but it’s SUPER important that we question where and why that information is being given to us and then whether we keep it and use it or disregard it.
What are your ambitions for the next 2 years?
Ha! Have baby number 2 – that’s the next thing on the list. But I have to say that maternity leave offers an opportunity for me to really reflect on what’s happening in the world through a new lens. It’s a real gift to have months to take with your family, but your brain is always on and you’re still the same person you were before it (albeit a LOT more tired!), so you never stop seeing and listening to the things that interest you. On my last maternity leave it was really interesting just being a normal everyday consumer, especially one that’s a bit at sea with regards to what’s best for you and baby. There is so much misinformation out there and it’s hard to sift through it to see what’s important, correct and right for you. But I do love just slipping into meetings, events and attractions as a normal mum with kids and seeing what’s important to the consumer. It helps me to refocus our courses and events when I get back to work.
When I return though it’ll be back to pushing the envelope in regards to food and the Irish consumers. It’s an ever changing industry and there’s always something coming around the corner that we need to explore and learn about so that we can alter our behaviour, be it Brexit, climate change, food chain sustainability or food creation skills – we will always have to eat, and we will always have to try and be healthier and kinder to the environment so there will always be new things to learn! I really want to get Airfield Estate and our message outside the walls and into people’s lives – be a little bit in their face about changing some of their habits – but in a nice, polite and fun way… That’s a big ask in a world already saturated with information and misinformation about food, but I do believe that if you can be reliable, steady and reasonable in your approach you can also be respected and trusted as a source of information. As my Granny Hollowed always said “Shout and you’ll be heard, whisper and you’ll be listened to” and that’s what I plan on doing – just being that voice in your ear nudging and prodding to try and make us all better.
What challenges women face in the Irish Food industry?
A lot unfortunately I think. Don’t get me wrong – it’s definitely getting better (as it should!), but there’s still a long way to go. Most agricultural industries are still dominated by men and even though women are making their way up the ranks they’re still the exception rather than the rule.
Personally, I definitely felt that my urban, non-agricultural background was a hindrance rather than a strength and a unique view point when I went for job interviews and during my research. I didn’t have the intrinsic knowledge gained from working on farms since childhood and so I had to learn and learn fast (and often by myself) how to work with large animals, drive tractors and work with machinery. There were quite a few rolled eyes when I had to ask for help and that really dented my confidence and made me doubt whether I should be part of this field. I also struggled with regards to my research and poor supervisors who used my work as theirs and constantly chipped away at my abilities, ideas and the confidence I had in my own knowledge. That’s pretty common amongst masters and PhD students across the board though and unfortunately it seems to be an accepted part of academia – but it shouldn’t be that way. You shouldn’t ever have to “prove yourself” to anyone who doesn’t want to build you up. Unfortunately I think females are much more likely to be affected by all this rather than males, but it doesn’t kill you and definitely makes you stronger, it was a tough few years but it’s made me have a definitive view of how to deal with people and how to build up women that I come across in the industry. It’s important they hear at least one voice saying “Good Job” and giving constructive feedback in a caring way that encourages them to learn.
Women are an indomitable force and the tide is changing – as Beyoncé sang: “Boy, I know you love it, how we’re smart enough to make these millions, Strong enough to bear your children, then get back to business”. I’d be scared of women and what they can achieve if I wasn’t one! It’s never easy to choose what you do in life, whether you take time off to have kids, whether you take time to do that extra study, get that extra qualification or complete another internship to gain experience, but often women will have to do and accomplish more to seem on a par with their male compatriots. I will have lost 2 years of my career by having kids – my choice of course! – But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suck that I’m currently a few years behind where I thought I would be in my career.
Women also face a real conundrum when it comes to raising children and working, to an extent they’re expected to work like they have no kids and raise kids like they don’t work – and there’s no winners in that situation. The Sheryl Sandberg ideology of “Lean In” is a great idea and may work for some, but at the end of the day you only have so much energy, passion and love to give – and that has to be spent on the kids rather than work. I’ll transfer it fully back when the kids are off to school/college/married! But for now I have to choose where my priorities lie and be ok and at peace with that. And I’m lucky as I work for a female CEO who understands having kids and what that means and there’s flexibility in my work – but I shouldn’t have to be lucky to have that – it should just be accepted.
We need to actively seek out and nurture women in our workplaces to give them the confidence to speak out and get involved with projects and actions. Only by more women doing this will change happen – if you can’t see them, you can’t be them.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why.
I recently heard Aisling Rodgerson from Fumbally speaking at an event and I loved her message. She was speaking about their School Canteen Project where they are trying to demonstrate that it’s possible to have good, healthy food created for the kids. What I really appreciated though was her honesty in regards to the struggles they have faced. I don’t think we hear enough women talking about their failures – and if we did we would learn that others are facing challenges as much as we are and that they overcame them with their ingenuity and creativity.
The other person is Jilly Dougan. She has done trojan work in regards to getting food on the curriculum in Northern Ireland while at the same time being a commercial grower and being a lead at ‘The Yellow Door’. She’s friendly, helpful and always excited about being involved in others learning – but she’s taken her own circuitous route to get there and is always willing to take time to listen and give advice when asked. She’s a trailblazer and I’m lucky to know her.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
Mentoring, support and constructive feedback. All mangers male or female should be seeking out those who are best at the job. This can be hard to do as women tend not to shout about their successes and strengths. My mother gave me some advice once that “managers want success and they will employ and promote people that they know will make their lives easier”. She’s right to some extent in that you don’t want to be on their radar for the wrong reasons, but you also have to occasionally remind everyone how good you are at your job – shout about your achievements and not take compliments about your work in a blushing, shy, diminutive way – but with head held high and a “thank you for noticing”! Across the board, women need to be seen more and heard more. This might take training, but it also takes examples where women see other women being successful, taking the lead, taking praise well and also taking the time allocated for them to be with their families etc. Again, if you can’t see it – you can’t be it!
The food industry also needs to move away from the “isn’t she great altogether” mentality of successful women. They shouldn’t be the odd one out on the stage, they shouldn’t have to be lauded for their achievements of getting to the top or creating impact “because they’re a woman”, they should just be part of the industry. I hate seeing award categories separated into things like best farmer and best female farmer – if you’re the best, you’re the best, and men shouldn’t be frightened of a little fair competition! We also have to stop describing women by their family situation (i.e. Kirstie, married to an engineer and mum of Freddie, is Head of Education etc…). I was once in an article about women in Ag where the journalist kept calling me “Good Girl” and included the sentences: “Not many would have expected her to follow a career in agriculture, but she is now even married to a farmer from County Monaghan” and finished the article with “She is a woman on a mission, a mission few would have expected a city girl to be undertaking”. It made my skin crawl but it made me realise that until we shift the mind frames of the people listening – they’ll only hear what they want to!
But all of this above will involve a huge shift mind-set especially in the agri/food world and that won’t come quickly or easily – but by challenging and questioning and in some cases maybe even shaming people it will eventually change. As more lecturers in the agri-world become female, as more articles are written by and about women in farming and food –things will change – slowly – but they will!
Have you had a wow moment to date in your career? If so which one was it and why?
I’m blessed enough to have a few actually! From my teaching years it was my all girls team from Alexandra College winning the Scientific Foundation of Ireland Prize at the BT Young Scientist. They had created a new type of solar panel from looking at how plants shape and spread their leaves in order to catch sunlight efficiently to create energy – it was a super project and great to see my students looking at nature and applying the knowledge to technology!
From my research era, it was definitely getting my PhD. It was a long, hard slog, but I was so proud at the end and it was a significant piece of research that contributed towards the understanding of methane emissions from beef cattle and how they can be reduced and manipulated by diet.
From my time at Airfield, there’s thankfully loads to choose from! Getting interviewed for National Geographic – that was a real highlight! To think that people wanted to know about what we are doing here is amazing – that we’re making a difference – that’s pretty special! Having HRH Duchess of Cornwall visit and experience the kids programmes we run, that was pretty good too! And being an Advisor to the Dept. of Education on their new Science Curriculum was great – to be able to bring a perspective that focuses on the child and what they are learning and how they learn was a real privilege.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think about this a lot surprisingly. I think when you work with children and young people you can see yourself in some of them and you want to take them by the shoulders and say “never mind everyone else – do what you want to do! You’ll find your tribe eventually, and they will love who you are and what you stand for!”
I’d tell myself not to worry as much as I did about conversations that may or may not ever happen and if you don’t like something – speak up. I’ve lost days and nights after walking out of meetings thinking “I wish I’d said…” but the only way to stop that is to listen more carefully, keep your own council and measure your response, but that only comes after many failures and after many different experiences.
Most importantly I’d probably tell myself that I was going to make A LOT of mistakes – but that’s ok – as long as I learn from them.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
The art of discussion, patience and cognitive dissonance! It’s really important in my job to hold facts, information and research in your head but also be open to new information. The important skills are then assimilation of that information so that you can test against your previously held knowledge to see if it’s true or not and then be able to discuss that with people who may be staunchly for or against it. And it’s always a discussion – not an argument. I can accept that others have opinions about food, climate change or sustainability – but it’s up to me to talk them through their arguments. Too often we accept information without questioning it and when we dive a little deeper into what we believe to be true – we often find “black holes” of knowledge – and I love to fill them!!!
The best example I can give is Free-Range Chickens. The majority of people will buy free-range chickens but why is this so? When asked, most people will say because it’s better for the chicken and it’s healthier – but is this 100% the case? Think about it – if you were a chicken with no way of defending yourself – where is the worst place to be? Out in a field right? Where you can get eaten by foxes or hawks. It’s also the reason why most free-range hens stay close to the house when they’re out, so they can run back in if threatened. Also, they’re more susceptible to pests and diseases as they’re outside in an uncontrolled environment. Caged eggs conversely have all of their needs met in a closed environment and produce eggs which would be the first thing to stop if they weren’t being looked after properly. So – its something to think about – is free-range best for chicken – or so I can feel better about it?
It’s just worth a thought – and once you know – you know and you can make an informed choice. One production system isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other, they both have pros and cons, but everyone should have all the facts before making a decision.
What’s your go to comfort food and what do you cook when you want to impress?
My comfort food is easy – a roast chicken dinner with my Grans stuffing recipe and fluffy roast potatoes with sesame seeds on them. It’s the taste of Sunday lunches with all the family! What do I cook when I want to impress – I do a pretty mean Kedgeree which my son loves so gets cooked a lot and it’s not made by a lot of people so it’s a little bit out there for dinner parties!