Women in agriculture

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In 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stated that the number of women managing and operating farms in the United Kingdom (UK) has risen by nearly 10% to more than 25,000 between 2010 and 2013. This has resulted in 28% of the British Agricultural workforce now being female.

In recent years, DEFRA has reported less of a stigma between male and female jobs with girls becoming more confident in terms of choosing to study agricultural related courses at University. In the past five years alone, the number of female students opting to study agriculture at Harper Adams University in Shropshire has doubled.

With more and more men choosing to work on arable farms due to the attraction of driving and working with large pieces of machinery such as, combine harvesters this has led to a reduction in the number of male stockmen. Therefore, farm business enterprises rely heavily upon the contribution of women and researchers from Universities and Government departments have encouraged the agricultural industry to demolish the barriers, which prohibit women from entering the industry. Current barriers to entry for women include fewer opportunities to progress their careers coupled with fewer opportunities for promotion to leadership roles.

The idea of passing on the family farm from father to the oldest son is still a tradition prevalently practised in Northern Ireland but it is a tradition that should be challenged according to a new report produced by Newcastle University. In England when the laws of inheritance were challenged, this allowed women to take on a more prominent role within agriculture and allowed them to participate in the full range of farming activities.

Newcastle University in partnership with Scotland’s James Hutton Institute has recommended that agricultural organisations should implement a quota system when electing and appointing new members to leadership positions in order to ensure better representation for women. The report’s authors also recommended introducing better mechanisms to allow progression from Young Farmers’ groups to roles that are more senior, the establishment of a talent bank of suitably qualified women for agricultural positions and the introduction of mechanisms to identify female mentors to support both male and female apprentices.

In an online questionnaire issued by Newcastle University 18% of respondents identified ‘not welcome by existing male leaders’ as a barrier to their participation in leadership of agricultural related organisations. Professor Sally Shortall of Newcastle University is concerned that the industry is missing out on the talent of young women in particular.

This new piece of research is the first of its kind to look into gender issues in agriculture, and identifies, and highlights the challenges to and the potential tools required to improve upon the levels of participation women make to farming and to the leadership of the agricultural industry. In total 1300 women who reside and work on farms were surveyed with 30 interviews and nine focus groups conducted with both men and women.