First-ever female engineer hired by John Deere still blazing a trail for women in agriculture

A lot has changed for Debra Harrison in the past 39 years.

Almost four decades ago she was the first female engineer ever hired by John Deere. Today she is president of John Deere Canada. Earlier this week, Harrison shared that journey with 450 people attending the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference at Niagara Falls, Ont.

Back then, women were just starting to enter non-traditional roles and it was tough, says Harrison, who recalls being the only woman among 650 engineers at an engineering conference early in her career. She was the only woman amongst her graduating McGill University engineering class; she also recalls that there were no washrooms for women on the shop floor when she started her first job.

It was a time when women weren’t believed to be mechanically inclined, she says matter-of-factly. “You just had to work that much harder because the first impression was that you don’t know anything about machinery and agriculture,” recalls Harrison. “Once you started that dialogue and people understood who you were and what you knew, then you started having a really fruitful conversation.” But until she earned that respect, every time she met someone the industry she had to prove herself…. and prove herself she did.

In her 39-year career with John Deere, Harrison has worked in a variety of areas including product engineering, enterprise strategic quality and production systems, and in factory-based operations. In 2017, she was named president of Deere’s Canadian operations where she works closely with the Canadian board of directors and key management teams and functional area leads to establish long-range goals, strategic plans and policies.

In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, Harrison shares insights learned throughout her career on leadership, balancing your heart and your brain, leveraging strengths and working on your weaknesses, and the need for humility. (Story continues after the interview.)

Harrison also comments on how the landscape for women in agriculture has changed since she entered the workforce in 1980. “Today when I look around I see husbands and wives working together as equal partners; I see women out in operations; I see women out in agronomy. Women have a presence today where they didn’t have a a presence 39 years ago.”

But there’s still work to be done. Harrison believes young women entering the work force will likely experience negativity and exclusion at some point in their career. However, she believes young women can and should prepare for these conflicts and tackle them with confidence when they arise.

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