Women in Agriculture: The Unexplored Challenge
Women contribute significantly to agricultural economies in developing countries. Data on the agriculture sector in Africa suggests that women comprise approximately 40% of the workforce, with variation across African countries. A 2017 study suggests that women account for 56% of the crop production in Uganda and 52% in Tanzania and Malawi while the figure is much smaller for countries like Niger (24%) and Ethiopia (29%).
Women are involved in driving food production, maintaining livestock, sustaining fisheries, and many other facets of the agri-food value chain. However, the variation in contributions to agricultural production is indicative of several challenges that women face in the agricultural sector, including fewer assets, less access to inputs, resources, and services than men (World Bank, 2017). Women also face various challenges stemming from their productive, reproductive, household, and societal roles (FAO, 2011).
From Crop Producers to Agricultural Professionals
As the sector transforms, women’s roles change (FAO, 2011). The challenges we observe also extend to women professionals in the agriculture sector, including a significant wage gap, lack of access to training and capacity-building opportunities, and underrepresentation in leadership positions. The nature of such challenges, the causes, and how they can be addressed is yet to be investigated fully, and efforts to promote women’s voice in the agricultural sector have come up short. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the present work environment constrains women from maximizing their potential and contributions to the sector.
My research explores the challenges that women in agricultural professions experience. The investigation recognizes the need to understand how women assess their participation in “masculinized” agricultural professions and how women can and do navigate through the space to achieve their career goals. Research on the challenges that women in agriculture face provides a starting point for strategically addressing long-standing inequities. Moreover, the research contributes to crafting interventions and the creation of support structures to further the career ambitions of female agricultural professionals.
How Did We Get Here…?
Women work in agricultural spaces as crop and animal scientists, biotechnologists, extension agents, and policymakers. However, women face many challenges in historically male-dominated work environments and the challenges are rooted in the traditional gender hierarchies that have been upheld in many societies (Martin and Barnard, 2013). Previous research has emphasized that cultural norms often shape gender inequalities in the agricultural profession (Shortall et al., 2017).
These norms have material impacts on the access to educational opportunities and the support structures required to succeed in the profession. Embedded and intersectional patriarchy offer subtle and non-subtle messages that discourage women from working as agricultural professionals.
This is witnessed in organizational settings and practices that upheld gender bias against women. To this effect, Martin and Barnard (2013) noted that women were forced to adopt some male characteristics to survive in a male-dominated environment. This deters women from pursuing science. Campbell et al (2019) found that even after being competitive in their school years and studying STEM-related fields, women were in the minority in male-dominated environments. Women are encouraged to adapt to the environment as their way of coping as opposed to shaping the environment in meaningful ways.
Scoping Out The Challenges
In 2021, I conducted focused group discussions (FGDs) with some purposively selected women professionals in the agricultural sector in Zambia. The country has seen growth in the agricultural sector and efforts are underway to augment production and nurture private businesses to enhance food production and security. In 2017, the World Bank began a financial facility of 40 million USD under the Zambia Agribusiness and Trade Project. This marks a period of investment in Zambia’s agricultural development since 2010. With the significant investment, there are expected to be many opportunities for professionals in the agricultural sector. One of the major questions is whether these investments will lead to gender inclusion in the agriculture space or will women be crowded out of the professional opportunities that result.
Against this backdrop, the FGDs revealed that despite increased opportunities the agricultural space is highly gendered and difficult to navigate for women. A major concern for FGD participants was the inflexibility of the work environment and how it prevented a healthy life-work balance. One of the FGD participants shared that their reproductive role as a mother often clashes with their role as a professional. The long working hours, fieldwork, and long work periods in rural areas away from home make it difficult to maintain family commitments.
The agricultural professionals shared that gender stereotypes persist, including that women are not capable leaders and should not do jobs that are considered the domain of men or are not deemed “suitable” for women. Women agricultural professionals have had to get the backing and approval of their clients and fellow workers before they can do their work. As indicated by the FGD participants, the norm is for the women agricultural professionals to pitch their credentials before what they have to say is accepted. One professional explained that she was viewed skeptically and as a ‘competitor’ despite having the appropriate credentials. She noted that as a female in her field of work her potential and aspirations were consistently downplayed.
There was evidence suggesting the institutionalization of the stereotypes as public and private employers prefer to hire males instead of female agricultural professionals because they feel the workspace is not for females and males are more likely to expand the business. One female FGD participant narrated how her male boss would sometimes say, “we need a young man to take up this work.” She noted that the statement would make her wonder if something was wrong with her.
Another insight from the FGDs is that decisions were often made outside the ‘boardroom’ or the ‘laboratory.’ Because of competing reproductive demands on the woman professionals in agriculture, mostly, they could not participate in the decision-making process. It was stated that the men would talk about soccer (football) before meetings and once meetings started, it was always clear that they had already discussed and taken positions on the issues for consideration. In other instances, men would discuss critical decisions while playing golf or during drinks after work. “The Men’s Club”, it was called. As such, the female professionals felt left out and were always playing catch up. In some cases, women adapted to these realities in search of a say in the decision-making process. For instance, some professionals mentioned efforts to join the “Men’s Club” and to attend drinks with the men.
Another challenge that most of the women have had to deal with as agricultural professionals is sexual and verbal harassment, as well as physical harassment. This can occur when women feel compelled to network outside of the office in male-dominated settings. It is also indicative of significant problems with accountability and safety in agricultural organizations.
Addressing the Challenges
Preliminary findings from my research suggest that patriarchy-induced norms and attitudes underscore several areas where reform and mindset change are necessary. The first step is to consider gender sensitivity and organizational environment training that includes both women and men. The aim should be to foster a gender-responsive climate. Other policies must be crafted to ensure that women have capacity-building opportunities and a support structure to guarantee a healthy life-work balance in a professional environment. The research findings will contribute to these solutions that amplify the role of professional women in a growing and dynamic agricultural sector.
Campbell, Constance; Williams, Feruzan Irani; and Rutner, Paige, “In Their Own Words: The Career Stories of Women Leaders in STEM Professions” (2019). SAIS 2019 Proceedings. 32. https://aisel.aisnet.org/sais2019/32
FAO. 2011. The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011, Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender gap, The Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome. http://www.fao.org/3/i2050e/i2050e.pdf
Martin, P., & Barnard, A. (2013). The experience of women in male-dominated occupations: A constructivist grounded theory inquiry. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology/SA Tydskrif vir Bedryfsielkunde, 39(2), Art. #1099, 12 pages. http:// dx.doi.org/10.4102/sajip. v39i2.1099
Shortall, Sally; Sutherland, Lee-Ann; McKee, Annie; Hopkins, Jonathan, “Women in Farming and the Agriculture Sector” (2017). Final Report for the Environment and Forestry Directorate, Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) Division, Scottish Government, https://www.gov.scot/publications/women-farming-agriculture-sector/pages/9/
World Bank 2017, Help Women ‘Get to Equal’, The World Bank, Washington. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/agriculture/brief/women-farmers-getting-to-equal