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Publication - Research Publication

Women in farming and the agriculture sector: research report

Published: 23 Jun 2017
Part of:
Farming and rural

Findings and recommendations from research into the role of women in farming and the agriculture sector in Scotland.

187 page PDF


187 page PDF


Women in farming and the agriculture sector: research report
3 Literature Review

187 page PDF


3 Literature Review

The literature review gives an overview of previous research from elsewhere that has examined the questions posed to the contractors by the Scottish Government. It gives a context to the Scottish research and provides an understanding of practices elsewhere.

3.1 Daily Life of Women on Farms over Time

A considerable amount of the literature has considered the peculiarities of the occupation of farming, and how social practices shape gender relations. Much early research tried to make visible the world of women within the family farm (Sachs, 1983; Shortall, 1991; 1992; 1999; Alston, 1995; 1998; Pini, 2002; O'Hara, 1998; Gasson, 1980; Haugen, 1990; Brandth, 2002; Overbeek et al., 1998; Whatmore, 1991; Bartlett, 1983; Silvasti, 2003; Černič Istenič, 2006). Research considered how men's identity as farmers is tied to their land ownership, their role identity as farmer comes from owning the means of production. They occupy the occupational position of 'farmer' and they are seen to do the productive agricultural work. This was a prestigious occupation (Hannan and Commins, 1992) and defined the man's identity as head of the farm and the family. Women's identity on the farm was strongly tied to their marital status and much early research refers to 'farmers' wives' - underlining women's identity as spouse of the farmer. Until recently, agricultural statistics also tended to report the activities of women as spouses.

Subsequent research sought to make visible the gendered definitions of farm labour and farming, and in this way illuminate women's work on the farm, and indeed the importance of their work role to their identity. These studies considered women's participation in decision making, the types of work they undertook and the tasks performed, and noted that considerable amounts of this work was not recorded in official statistics. Women's work was private, unpaid and not publicly recognised. Ridgeway (2009) argues that gender stereotypes are not just individual beliefs; rather they are culturally hegemonic beliefs because they become embedded in social structures such as the media, the law and taken for granted organisational practices. Evidence shows that this is very clear for the hegemonic beliefs about gendered farming identities. Men continue to predominantly inherit land, despite national variations in how the legal transfer of agricultural land is regulated (Shortall, 2010). Agricultural media mainly features men and extension training services are still predominantly orientated toward men (McGowan, 2011; Trauger et al. 2008; 2010).

Different legal frameworks govern the transfer of land across the EU. In many places, the transfer of property is not overtly regulated by law, but for other countries it is regulated by clear legal guidance. In Norway, the Allodial Law rules the eldest child is the legal heir to the farm. Evidence demonstrates however, that despite women and men having the same legal rights to inherit a farm, the majority of new entrants continue to be male. In Switzerland, any child can claim the farm under the condition that she or he can manage the farm herself/ himself, but again, the heir is predominantly male. In Denmark the heir must buy the farm, and the assets of parents are split between all siblings after death. In the Basque Country there is equal distribution of the land amongst all children, and the heir, if wishing to continue farming, must buy the portions of land of siblings. It is argued that the rights of inheritance in the Basque Country threaten the economic viability of agriculture. Despite a variety of legal frameworks, some of which promote greater gender equality, it remains the case that the heir is predominantly male. France, Germany and Italy have community property laws intended to give stronger property rights to women in marital relationships. Each spouse may own property in their own right, typically property acquired before marriage or by gift or inheritance after marriage. However all property acquired by either spouse during marriage, which is not by gift or inheritance, is 'community property'. All earnings by either spouse during marriage and all assets acquired with such earnings, form part of community property. (For further details on European legal frameworks see Shortall, 2010.)

We do not have comprehensive comparative data on the extent to which women are co-owners of farms or partners in the farm. There is some evidence that only when agricultural policy and the taxation system make it rational and worthwhile for women to be partners are they incorporated. Research in Greece has shown that the implementation of the CAP regulations in 1997 had unintended consequences for women's position in farming. It stipulated that to access full agriculture subventions one had to work more than half time in farming. Since most farmers in Greece are smallholders and pluri-active, this led to some transferring management and/ or the title of the land to their wives, who became registered as the farmers and accessed agriculture subventions. This shows that the CAP can impact on patterns of land ownership.

There is also some evidence to suggest that pre-nuptial agreements are emerging as new strategies to ensure women's limited entitlement to the farm in the case of divorce. This is an issue that requires further research. Given that we know women contribute to the farm through their farm activity but also through their off-farm employment, it is important that their economic rights are protected in the case of divorce (Shortall, 2010).

While economic and legal factors influence the transfer of land, cultural norms and practices appear to be the most important factor. For example, while the Allodial Law in Norway did increase the number of women farmers, it has not led to the gendered equality that would be expected from this type of legal change, and this is tied to the deep rooted cultural norms around gender and land ownership. These cultural norms have historical bases, linked initially to the fact that in most Western societies, women, especially married women, did not have property rights and farming was a physically demanding manual occupation. Cultural norms still seem to govern the inter-generational transfer of land within families, where land is typically passed from father to son. Acquisition of land is based on sex and it underpins the different positions of men and women in agriculture. Men constitute the constant family line through which land is passed, and women float in and out. Not having access to the key resource, land, means that women have less access to farming organisations, they are not considered producers, and education and training is not aimed at them. Property continues to provide access to the public domain of farming. The fact that the public domain is almost entirely male then takes on a cultural power of its own, and this is what we see happening in farming organisations. Access to property has fundamentally shaped women's role in farming. The social norms and customs that regulate the transfer of property to men rather than women also shape and construct gender roles and identities (Shortall, 2010).

3.2 Aspirations, Career Paths and Off-farm Work

Many farms, particularly in Europe, because of the funds available through the EU Rural Development Programme, have undertaken farm-diversification activities. While the data available is vexingly poor, there are many national case studies that show that women are active in farm diversification activities (Bock, 2004; 2010; Brandth and Haugen, 2010; 2011; Gorman, 2006; Shortall, 2016a). These tend to reflect particular types of diversification ( e.g. public facing activities such as agri-tourism and local market selling) (Trauver, 2004). A Swedish study of agricultural students found that female students identified plans to develop on-farm processing and educational activities, whereas male students preferred machine-relating activities for diversification (Grubbström et al., 2014)

Interestingly, the way in which farm diversification develops, often reinforces gender identities on the farm. Bock (2004) argues that women undertake smaller scale diversification activities. This is reflective of their more restricted access to capital, but also to their desire and aspiration to fit diversification activities around their other caring commitments and wishing to multi-task other domestic gender identity roles. Brandth and Haugen (2010; 2011) argue that when farming couples diversify into tourism activities, gender and work identities are done and undone in ways that can reinforce traditional understandings of masculine and feminine roles. Men become responsible for outdoor activities, and women for indoor activities. Spouses praise each other for their prowess in their particular gender sphere, for doing gender distinctive work well, thus engaging in positive identity reification. The authors also note that many tourists come expecting these types of gender roles and identities, recognising them as symbolic of authentic farming life. Their recreation and maintenance then, becomes a component of the farm tourism business.

Women's off-farm employment has changed significantly in recent decades due to increased educational levels and labour market participation for women generally and to the lifting of a marriage bar preventing women working after marriage that was in place in many parts of the western world until the 1960s and 1970s. Brandth (2002) argues that with the increase in off-farm work, one would have expected new identities to emerge in a way which they did not. It moves women's employment into the public sphere, and in many instances women are often the primary breadwinner, or at least significantly contribute to the survival of the farm (Moss et al, 2000; Kelly and Shortall, 2002; Shortall, 2014; 2016b). Kelly and Shortall (2002) argue that neither resource bargaining arguments nor gender ideology arguments explain what off-farm employment means for gender relations within the farm household. Having greater resources does not mean women bargain to renegotiate domestic responsibilities or gender relations. People do not behave as maximising individuals within the household (Wheelock and Oughton, 1996). Rather the farm household behaves as a collective and tries to ensure the well-being of family members by verifying key identities.

Shortall (2014) has argued that despite their elevated economic status as breadwinner, women on farms continue to perform gender identities such that they reinforce men's work identity as a farmer, as the decision-maker, and in this way reinforce his masculinity. The changed economic and status position of farming means then men's work and gender identity is threatened. Women engage in identity verification for the well-being of their spouses. Other research has focused on the detrimental effect on men's health and well-being when their identity as the breadwinner and farming head of household is threatened. Schneider (2012:1033) maintains that the construct of the male breadwinner has proved to be exceptionally durable and continues to structure the expectation that men will be the primary earners in married couples and that masculinity is produced in part through fulfilling that expectation. This seems to be particularly the case for men on farms, whose identity is not only linked to their position as the breadwinner, but also to the power and privilege that has been associated with being a landowner. When the economic and social standing of their position is threatened, it can have significant implications for men's mental health (Alston and Kent, 2008; Alston, 2006; 2012; Ni Laoire, 2001; Price and Evans, 2009; Barlett, 2006).

3.3 Career Paths, Leadership and Access to Agricultural Training

Most agricultural training is structured in a vocational way for those that will enter the occupation, so in many ways it is not surprising that most agricultural programmes have a majority of male students. In addition extension programmes provide on-going lifetime training for adults active on the farm. However, the socially constructed identities of women as home makers and farmers' wives, means that they frequently do not obtain a knowledge transfer appropriate to their farming roles, resulting in women farmers being underserved in agricultural education and technical assistance (Trauger et al. 2008; Shortall, 1996; Alston, 1998; Liepins and Schick, 1998). Women themselves often view training groups and programmes as being for men and feel unwelcome and conspicuous in this space. In addition, agriculture extension workers do not always see women as 'authentic' farmers, because they do not occupy outdoor space and hence do not invite them to training initiatives or address programmes to their work (Barbercheck et al., 2009; Trauger et al., 2010; Teather, 1994).

This remarkably stubborn and persitent gender divide is problematic, because evidence shows that increasingly off-farm employment to support the farm is decided between the couple, and educational levels and life cycle issues determine who will work on the farm and who will work off the farm (El-Osta et al., 2008; Benjamin and Kimhi 2006). Seeing men as the authentic farmer means the relevant person on the farm may not receive appropriate training. This may impede women's chosen career path. For decades now research has shown that agricultural extension workers often do not see the implicit gender barriers to women's participation, and instead claim that agricultural training is open to everyone (Shortall, 1999; Trauger et al., 2009). In some instances where the exclusive gendered space of agricultural training has been recognised, agricultural advisers have established provisions specifically targeted at women (Sachs, 1988, Shortall, 1996). In these instances, there is sometimes an exact reproduction of what is provided to the men's groups, and provision that deals with women's caring roles, such as safety of children on farms. Women appreciate the opportunity to avail of this training where it is provided, and state that it legitimates the knowledge they have obtained experientially. The social construction of a specific space for women's education and training is double edged. It reinforces the social unacceptability of women attending mainstream training, or underlines their identity distinctive to that of male farmers.

3.4 Leadership and Women's Place in Farming Organisations

Women are very under-represented in farming organisations. Often this is because membership subscriptions are individual, rather than family based, so the male head is a member but not the women active on the farm. In many parts of the world, women have worked around this by forming farm women's organisations, which can be a double-edged sword; on the one hand, farm women's organisations show enormous leadership in an area where women are excluded, while on the other hand, they can legitimise that exclusion by forming women's organisations and not challenging the male norm. What is interesting about farm women's organisations is that sometimes they have developed organically, such as the Canadian Farm Women's Movement and Norwegian Women in Forestry (Teather, 1994; Shortall, 1994; Leach, 2014; Brandth et al., 2014), or as a combination of a bottom up response to state funding as in Australia (Panelli and Pini, 2005), or as a top-down initiative as in Penn State and Northern Ireland (Trauger et al, Shortall, 1996). Sometimes women's organisations develop as bottom up movements, similar to the case in Canada. In Northern Ireland, women agricultural advisers started 'farm ladies groups'. In Penn State there is a partnership between the state and the university to work with women in agriculture.

The strength of the identity of the group depending on whether it is self-formed or whether it is established by people outside of the group is disputed; Jenkins (2008) suggests that membership of a group is sufficient to develop a particular identity and collective sense of belonging to the group. The gendered identity of women has to be stated in the title ( e.g. Women in Forestry, North Aantrim Farm Ladies Group, etc.) because they are far less visible in the mainstream norm, whereas male organisations are perceived as gender neutral. However, leadership in organisations is socially constructed.

Research needs to be cognisant of the complexities of rural women-only organisations which on the one hand offer support and opportunities to women leaders, but also reinforce the perception that their correct sphere is outside of the mainstream norm.

The public presentation of the occupation of farming is as a male activity. For example, supermarket advertisements of farm producers typically show men, sometimes with their sons. Any agricultural newspaper or magazine predominantly features pictures of men, often because they are reporting activities and events that are predominantly attended by men. When women do feature in agricultural media, they are often presented as 'exceptional', which in effect serves to underline the fact that they are not the norm. On the one hand, gendered identities around farming and farm work have remained stubbornly in place. On the other hand, the increased on-farm and off-farm employment of farm women, has meant a considerable change in their work status and identities.

3.5 Policy Overview

A significant amount of research has been commissioned in the past decade that has sought to understand and address this issue. For example, the European Union has commissioned research to consider how to more effectively engage women in agriculture to ensure its greater efficiency (Shortall, 2010). The Australian Department of Primary Industries commissioned an event to consider how to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the dairy industry during the drought because they felt women were better able to deal with the stress and uncertainty than men (Shortall, 2010). In Northern Ireland, policy commissioned research was concerned about the general question of gender equality (Shortall and Kelly, 2001; Shortall and Kelly, 2013). Health and Safety Executives have queried if there may be gender differences in approaches to farm safety, and if, therefore, more targeted engagement of women might make farms safer (Shortall et al., 2008). In the context of the Developing World, overseas development agencies try to ensure farming support goes through women as this is seen as likely to produce a greater economic return (Shortall et al., 2015). As such policy interventions are necessary to address ideological commitments to gender equality, and to advance economic and health objectives.

Agriculture operates in a global context, but in the European Union, the Rural Development Programme has a considerable influence on gender relations on farms. It can reinforce or ameliorate existing inequalities. While legislatively gender mainstreaming is integral to the European Rural Development Regulation, in practice the equality legislation at Member State level remains very important. In the Scottish context, both European and National legislation will need to be considered, particularly the Scottish Gender Equality Duty. Policy recommendations will have to consider every aspect of the life cycle in relation to farming; inheritance customs, early entrants, equal treatment of women spouses, and retirement from farming.

It is also important to consider this study in the context of Scottish rural and land policy, not least the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, and the Succession (Scotland) Act 2016.

3.6 Conclusion

This literature review provides an understanding of the situation of women in agriculture elsewhere. It is an occupation which is riddled with gender inequalities in access to land, participation in farming organisations, and education and training. The cultural norm of sons inheriting farms is very resistant to change. There is remarkably little previous research on women in farming and the agriculture sector in Scotland. This research will help to fill this gap.