You're viewing our new website - find out more

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
5 Career Paths and Aspirations

187 page PDF


5 Career Paths and Aspirations

Key Findings

Experiencing agriculture in childhood clearly impacts on future engagement in the industry. Just over half of the participants (54%) in the main survey and 38% of student and alumni respondents were raised on farms; a further 16% and 25% respectively reported that although they were not raised on a farm, they had spent a lot of time on farms growing up.

Women in farming tend to be highly motivated, innovative, hard working and keen to diversify the business.

Women's career paths into farming is diverse but there are two main routes: those who enter farming and the agriculture sector by choice and those who marry a farmer and enter the occupation as a result.

Women farming by choice are: tend to be new entrants, highly educated, and often with an agriculture sector background.

Women who marry into farming: can bring 'fresh eyes' to farming activities; are able to be more detached and less emotive about the farm business; are very involved in management, accounts, passports; contributing off-farm income; are bringing off-farm employment skills to the farm.

Approximately 30% of survey respondents identified their interest in developing on-farm diversification activities.

5.1 Qualitative Analysis of Career Paths and Aspirations

Women in farming and the agriculture sector have varied career paths that brought them to where they are now. This is to be expected; people end up in careers by all different routes. There are a number of factors that shape women's career paths. These are considered in turn. The greatest differentiating categories seem to be motivation for entering farming. In this respect, two clear categories of women in agriculture and the farm sector emerge:

  • Women who are in farming and the agriculture sector by choice; and
  • Women who are in farming because they married a farmer and then it became their occupation too.

5.1.1 Women who are in farming and the agriculture sector by choice

Many of the women we interviewed had made a clear and positive career choice to enter the agriculture sector. Sometimes this career path was chosen because they had a brother who would inherit the farm, so their only option to stay in the industry was to work in the agriculture sector in the first instance. This is a result of the gendered inequalities of land transfer. For some women staying in the agriculture sector is by choice. For others choosing employment in the agriculture sector was initially to keep them close to farming, and then they subsequently became farmers either by becoming new entrants, or marrying a farmer. These quotes are illustrative of the general pattern that emerges from the data:

Well, I was born into the family farm, I'm the eldest of five children, four girls and a boy…it was actually four girls to start off and as me being the eldest I was then sort of geared towards taking on the family farm. Then thirteen years later my brother was born and at that point I was thirteen so I knew that…it was the boy who takes the farm…but I still wanted to work within the farming industry…and then I went on to be a farm secretary for a farm. # Young new entrant women # 5

In this example, this young woman knew that she would no longer inherit the farm, and instead chose to go into the agriculture sector. She and her husband are now new entrants on a tenanted farm.

In this next example, a woman recounts how her decisions in secondary school were shaped by her interest in agriculture, and her access to land.

My uncle was a farmer which kind of got me interested in farming because we used to go over weekly on a Sunday and visit. And then in fifth year I became interested in agriculture. Coming up with veterinary. I decided if I did agriculture then there weren't going to be openings for a female...and I wouldn't make as much money as if I did veterinary. So I did go into veterinary with that in mind. Always quite interested in land use...anyway, once I went self-employed I started my own herd of cattle. I decided to start with something easy so I bought bullocks! I did rented ground and for the next ten years I've rented ground in different places as I've been locuming. So I've had a kind of migrating herd. I had...kept my eye on a croft… So eventually I bought this, it's an owner-occupied croft and so I own it rather than tenant it...So its 45 acres. # Older new entrant woman/ vet 7 #

The examples above both demonstrate women's choices to go into agricultural related employment because they realised that they would not inherit the farm.

Another woman, who is a new entrant to farming also commented that the rest of her female class mates had gone into the agricultural sector, again, because they will not inherit land.

In the class there would have been about thirty and there was about five females...a lot of them are in the agricultural sector. One used to work in the SAC labs, one writes for a Scottish newspaper, another one works for an agronomist, another one is a cattle buyer. So they are all in the agricultural sector and a few of them will stay on farms with I think a view to go on and work the farms, at least two or three of them will. # Young new entrant woman # 1

This new entrant also explains how her background in agriculture meant she pursued a career in the agriculture sector. She met her husband through the Young Farmers and they are now on a tenant farm:

I was brought up on a dairy farm initially until I was seven then my dad got a job on a mixed beef and sheep farm. He was a dairyman to start with and then a farm worker on the mixed one. So my granddad he's a farm owner as well so it's all born and bred really. So we were there until we were seventeen and then I decided...I left school and went to SAC and did a degree in agriculture. That was three years there, left there and went and worked for the Scottish Agricultural College in Elgin and was more like a consultant's assistant and did consultancy. So I met my husband through Young Farmers and that's how we kind of got together and then this is a tenanted farm. [Laughter] # Young new entrant woman # 1

The woman below wanted to be a livestock buyer. Her two brothers were taking over her father's business which left no scope for her. She later met her husband, a farmer, and then they began livestock buying. This is how she tells the story:

I went to what is Robert Gordon's... It was called Institutional Management in those days, which was ...basically management so I did that course. And my father was a livestock buyer and auctioneer but I had two brothers who were in the business or going to the business. So I left home and went away, travelled the world for about six years, came home, went into the business and then met my husband who was a farmer… We started our own one which was livestock buying and dealing so he carried on farming and we incorporated the livestock buying and dealing with it. # Older woman farmer # 2

One woman was clear: her passion was agriculture and working in the sector was her way to be close to it:

My passion has always been agriculture so I got a job next door with the NFU Mutual selling insurance to farmers which at least got me back in the door. # Women in agricultural industry focus group

The general pattern for new entrant women in farming was that their original career path choice meant they were skilled from previous agricultural sector employment. This was highly beneficial to the farm and often a considerable saving on farm expenses.

I grew up on a farm so it was...we had beef cattle, and some crops. And you know, I think it was probably a bit of a natural path to end up wanting to be a vet. And that's changed as time goes on because we just to start with had little calves and then was like mixing milk for them literally and going and getting food for them, and looking after them and vaccinating them and everything, and I can do all the vaccinations. # New entrant woman, Orkney # 11

There were many examples of women's prior experience, not just saving money on the farm, but also innovating and diversifying the farm:

I would say if there's any sort of specialist advice, obviously that's what I do for my job, I'm a consultant so I do the IACS forms. We've also got agri-environment schemes because that's what I specialise in so we've got one of those running so I did a big application for that. ...We're in the new Beef Efficiency Scheme so...I applied for that. # Young woman farming married into farm # 13

This woman does all of the paperwork for the farm, but also used her expertise to ensure the farm made maximum use of opportunities available.

Some women in the Orkney Islands joked that they had wanted to go into farming, and to do so, their ambition was to marry a farmer;

I've lived in Orkney all my life. I'm from Westray, another Orkney island, but I also grew up on a farm both grandparents...both lots of grandparents were farmers. My folk were farmers and then I married a farmer. That was my ambition in life! So I fulfilled it! # Focus group Orkney women

Some women said that they had a career in the agriculture industry but that their choice was not related to agriculture. These two women made this point but they were not the norm:

I've ended up here because I've made career choices. I moved into agriculture from sort of rural estate management specifically to broaden my experience. My background is not agricultural, but I spent a lot of my childhood summers on a farm I don't think I'm here specifically because I have a real interest in agriculture and it's in my blood kind of thing, but now I'm here I like it and I kind of see it as quite an honest industry, and I like that we can use it to produce things and the products that we produce! # Women in agricultural industry focus group

I don't think I'd have ever even seen myself doing policy but somehow it just kind of happened from my sort of interest in animal welfare, I ended up doing the legislation work for [organisation name removed] then I've always had an interest in farming and I did do in livestock production. So that interest remains but if I was to be offered another job doing the same sort of thing but outwith farming the answer to that would purely be it would depend on what that job was! # Women in agricultural industry focus group

For those in the study, both women and men, who have chosen a career path, they talked about it being in their blood, almost as a calling that could not be ignored. This was true for both men and women, as the following quotes illustrate:

Lots of folk are in farming because it is a compulsion, it's something that's in you, it's something you've done, you want to do, and I mean for me I could earn a good income elsewhere and have worked 'oot and a'boot' but I've no regrets about doing the farming. #1 Men focus group #2

My granddad, he's a farm owner as well so it's all born and bred really. You know? I mean I was born and bred into agriculture and I knew that's what I wanted to do but there are a lot of folk that actually just want to do it. # Young new entrant woman # 1

My father he's a farm manager on an estate so he's always been in farming, doesn't own a farm so I'll never succeed a farmer's basically in my blood . I've been brought up with it? So...once it's in the blood it's not easy to get out! [Laughter] # Young new entrant woman # 3

Many women and men who work in agriculture see it as heavily ingrained in their identity, an occupation that has been part of their entire life. It is the case for many women who begin work in the agricultural sector that they marry men who are farming or who also want to enter farming. This may be a result of doing agricultural degrees in university / college, and also because they belong to the Scottish Association of Young Farmers' Club. Research shows that people tend to choose partners who are of a similar social class/ religion/ interest group and are found as a result of the social networks in which we socialize. This seems to be happening in this instance.

5.1.2 Women who enter agriculture through marriage

These women did not choose a career in farming, rather they 'married in' to the farm family business and became involved in this way. Women who had chosen to enter farming or the agricultural sector had much greater exposure to the industry and were knowledgeable about farming, both from personal experience and from their work experience. Many also received agricultural related training as part of their employment. Women who found themselves in agriculture after marrying a farmer rather than choosing it as a career, did not have the same knowledge and experience starting out. Nonetheless their career path meant that they played important roles in the farm in various respects: continuing their own careers and providing financial support for the farm; providing emotional support; and helping with farm work. Women sometimes saw themselves as 'an extra pair of hands'. They did not see farming or the agriculture sector as their choice, but once in it they played a supporting role.

Here women who married into farming talk about their role as 'helping hands':

I would class myself as an extra pair of hands; I'm not involved in the absolute day to day running but if there's a road needing blocked to shift some cattle or something I'm happy for that or look for passports or that kind of thing but I'm not out there at eight in the morning but like during the night when there's calving and stuff I'm up then to check and help or whatever so... But my husband has got an apprentice student farmer coming so that's a really good help and his father is still involved as and when he can and wants to. # Woman married to farmer Orkney # 16

I could lamb, and did my turn at that. I've done all sorts of things with sheep that you wouldn't want to know about! [Laughter] And I suppose yeah...until such a time as my son was old enough that he was doing a lot on the farm I was really the person that did...was the extra pair of hands and did anything that was needed. # Woman married to farmer Orkney # 15

These women are involved in farm work but unlike women who have chosen it as their career path, they do not see it as central to the farm business. However, both women and men saw that while women may not have chosen a career path in farming, they are a valuable asset in varied ways. Here a vet talks about the supporting role women play on farms:

I've been working for 30 years in vetting now… I would say that predominantly its men [she deals with]. I would say the women's support is not to be undervalued in the slightest because they provide the emotional backup to the farmer. Make the tea, make the lunch, put the dinner on the table, wash, do all the...extra-curricular for which the men do not have a lot of time. I think they're under sung heroes! Some of them have also been involved in farm accounts, which a lot of farmers struggle with, so putting in the passport applications… # Older new entrant woman/ vet #7

Men also saw women's role, as central to the farm business, even when it had not been women's chosen career path.

Primarily she does the poultry, I always do the main check in the morning with the poultry but the lights go 'oot at five o'clock at night was a struggle for me to check at that time, we're busy doing other stuff. So she always does that, and always has done....and she likes the poultry side of dad's away the girls are older obviously, so ...the parenting side of things is nae quite so full on as it was….she's going to do a bit more but the girls are doing more as well…helping with the cattle, the middle daughter calving time she's 'oot the door a'fore me in the morning she has a great interest in the coo's ...and she wants to see what's going on …so it's just another pair of eyes. But the girls in my business, the wife included, are a big, big part of my business going forward even more so. #1 Men focus group # 2

In the above quote, the farmer presents his wife and daughters' work as central to the farm business. This man only has daughters and expects his middle daughter, who is fifteen years of age, to take on the farm when she is older.

Women and men also reported that women's involvement in agriculture with no prior experience can also be an asset to the farm. Primarily this comes from not having a farming background and being able to take a different perspective on the farm:

I think a woman's ability to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and to plan things. # Women in agricultural industry focus group

I think women can be a bit more open minded as well, a lot of men in my experience are 'it's always been that way'! # Women in agricultural industry focus group

That's an important element ...but my wife she's very management minded. So she's had that kind of outside involvement in the whole thing and ... was kind of the head person at [organisation name] so she had oversight over things. You know that kind of outside looking in sort of view at one time. #1 Men focus group # 2

A woman will actually take the time to think about the tasks that's about to be done and what needs to be done, and how best to do it rather than just bashing on and hoping it all goes to plan. # Women in agricultural industry focus group

These are examples of women's views that they bring fresh perspectives to farm work. The quote below is illustrative of general discussions that women who did not chose agriculture as a career can bring different values to the farm, which makes them assess farming activities differently:

Something that I think can hold our industry back a bit and its sort of slightly related is growing up I think farmers particular maybe male farmers tend to recognise and respect others for hard work rather than working well. As long as you're working hard you're in. # Women in agricultural industry focus group

In this instance, the respondent emphasises the importance of 'working well' ( i.e. more efficiently or effectively) as opposed to working hard.

Men also valued the different perspectives that women brought to the farm. They found their lack of intergenerational responsibility to the continuation of the farm useful, in that they were able to make more rational and objective decision making not based on emotive attachment to the farm:

Twice I've been in a little room where something is needing to be done and the guy cannae detach himself from the situation and she sees the family and the money, and everything disappearing. He will nae let go and it's a serious valuation it's always the woman that brings a bit of sense to the table. #1 Men focus group # 4

I think that's right, often the wife would look at the kids and their future from the point of view of well they'll have a better future if they're nae leaden down by this terribly indebted business if that was the situation, and of course that's an extreme situation. #1 Men focus group # 2

Women who did not chose farming as a career often contributed significantly to the financial success of the business either through their off-farm income from the career path they had chosen, or through the innovative, diversified initiatives they started on the farm.

I've set up and borrowed money and the only reason I could do it was I had a wife with a good salary from the word go… as a result that is a full-time job and my wife has never had anything to do with the books, the recording keeping or anything … She's got a PhD and if I need to be away I can leave her with my telescopic loader and my feed wagon and she can feed the cattle. #1 Men focus group # 1

We bought a farm and so had quite a bit of debt so the fact that we one working off the farm was great. I mean my wife does'nae get involved in the bookkeeping, or any of that stuff. She's very involved in what our kind of management decisions would be. But she's a terrific asset. #1 Men focus group # 4

It is interesting to note that both of these men emphasise the importance of their wives' off-farm income for the family farm. Both say their wives are not involved in bookkeeping but one provides complete farm cover as needed, and the other provides management expertise. While these women's career paths are predominantly outside of the farm, they nonetheless contribute significantly to the family farm.

There are other examples of women who 'marry in' also being innovative and becoming involved in activities on the farm. Sometimes this can take longer because of women's lack of knowledge about farming and the consequent insecurities;

I got more involved in the discussion around the turbines because it was new for the farm. I think for us the farm had been in the family for 200 years, You know, 'this is the way we do things', and I think there was so much kind of shared knowledge, assumed knowledge that when I said 'I don't know how to do that'...because they had all grown up with that knowledge totally embedded in them it was really alien to them to have to explain the basics. # Focus group women in agriculture #1

My background is branding and strategy. So when I got there I thought 'what? This is a bit of an industry, you have no impact, you're just supplying milk to someone else and off it goes and you don't actually have a say in where the money comes from or what the money is.' So I've kind of muttered about this for a while and then when we built the dairy I came back and said 'do you not think we should just make yogurt?' was kind of 'oh' and he's not against it because he's had a marketing degree and he's...between us we've all kind of looked at it so anyway I went off and did a course and then I came back, and I was kind of ignoring it for another few months… Then the dairy price really dropped and he said 'actually, I think this is a really good idea.'...but it's quite terrifying I mean if you'd asked me do I really want to create a food brand? No! But...I'm now kind of...going that way. #1 Women in agriculture/ Woman not farming by choice # 2

The first woman did not chose a career in agriculture, and it took her longer to negotiate a role in the farm initiative. She felt unsure because of the tacit knowledge about agriculture, but she is clearly a key player in the new enterprise. In the latter case, the woman's prior experience brought a fresh perspective which spotted the agricultural potential to diversity into another activity, and which allows her to use her marking and branding skills.

5.2 Quantitative Analysis of Career Paths and Aspirations

The surveys included questions about women's aspirations both on-farm and professionally. Amongst the students and alumni, 'interesting subject' was by far the most common response to the question of why they undertook agricultural education (80%). Half of students and alumni indicated that they had studied agriculture in order to get the job they wanted. A much smaller cohort sought to prepare to work on the family farm (13%) or to run their own farm (24%). This suggests that women undertaking formal agricultural education are not necessarily preparing for agricultural employment.

Interestingly, when asked about their career ambitions, only about half of students and alumni expressed interest in working in the agricultural sector (see Table 5.2a). This suggests that a large percentage of women trained in agriculture may not be taking up careers within the agricultural sector.

Table 5.2a Ambitions of student and alumni survey respondents
(Respondents selected multiple responses)

Responses to question: "Which of the following best describes your career ambitions?" Percentage
I want a career within the agricultural sector 53.1
I want a career where I can work in rural areas 34.1
I want a career where I can work with animals 29.3
I want to run my own farm 23.8
I want to manage farms or other land-based businesses 17.0
I want to run my own land-based business 15.6
I want to work on a farm 13.6
I want to work with plants or crops 12.2
I want to work with heavy machinery 1.4
Other ( e.g. to improve animal welfare, work in the land based sector, community growing and horticultural therapy) 16.3

For women living and working on farms ('main survey' respondents), the most common ambition was to continue their current on-farm role. However, some 29% expressed interest in starting or expanding a diversification activity on their farms (table 5.2b).

Table 5.2b Ambitions of women living and working on farms in Scotland

Responses to question: "How would you like to be involved in farming in 5 years' time?" Percentage of main survey respondents
Maintain current on-farm role 53.7
Start/expand a diversification activity on-farm 29.3
Become involved/increase involvement with an agricultural organization 7.5
Join/remain on the board of an agricultural organisation 3.7
Gain off-farm employment 1.4
Other 4.4

In terms of career paths, although only about half of main survey respondents were working off farm at the time of the study, 83% stated that they had worked off farm in the past. Just over a quarter of this was within the agricultural sector. Some 75% of main survey respondents agreed with the statement: "Working off-farm is rewarding to women in terms of status and individual identity" and 79% agreed that "Developing on-farm diversified enterprises such as agri-tourism gives women the opportunity to utilise their skills and pursue a range of career ambitions". However, 72% also agreed that "If there was more money in farming, fewer women would work off-farm".

Choosing to farm

The main survey did not include a question about whether the participants felt they had made an active choice to join the agricultural sector. However, it is possible to make some observations on the basis of whether they were raised on farms or not, and whether they personally acquired the holding or inherited it from their families.

Within the main survey, just over half of the participants (54%) were raised on the farm; a further 16% reported although they were not raised on a farm, they had spent a lot of time on farms growing up, and 30% had not been raised on farm. Experiencing agriculture in childhood thus is likely to influence on future engagement in the industry.

In terms of (statistically) significant differences within this cohort, women who had not been raised on farms were older, somewhat better educated overall (although less likely to have an agricultural education) and more likely to be working as professionals ( e.g. doctors, lawyers, teachers). They tend to be located on smaller holdings and were more likely to be crofters. Unsurprisingly, they were much less likely to have inherited a farm from their own family. They were no less likely to have acquired their current farm through their spouse.

Table 5.2c Employment in the agricultural sector by farm upbringing (%)

N=653 Non-farm Farm connections Raised on-farm
Not employed in the ag sector 64.7 65.7 51.5
All within the ag sector 22.5 29.5 38.8
Some within the ag sector 12.8 4.76 9.6

In terms of entry points, women who were not raised on farms are less likely to work within the agricultural sector. However, when they do, employment within the agricultural advisory sector appears to have been an entry point for 22% of women not raised on farms ( i.e. this was significantly higher than the other two agriculture sector employment options). They were, however, much less likely to have been employed by an industry organisation, charity or service or supply company. This suggests that women who acquire agricultural education are able to enter the industry in the capacity of advisor, but that women born into farming are more likely to gain employment within an industry organisation or business.

The difference in employment pattern is statistically significant:

Figure 5.2a Current off-farm employment of respondents who were and w ere not raised on farms
Figure 5.2a Current off-farm employment of respondents who were and w ere not raised on farms

There are no statistical differences in survey responses between the three cohorts in terms of having a farmer as a spouse. That is, some 23% of women who were not raised on farms also do not have a spouse that is a farmer, suggesting that their engagement in farming is not a direct result of marriage. Amongst survey respondents, similar percentages of women who were and were not raised on farms had married farmers.

Women not raised on farms are less interested in becoming involved in leadership of farming organisations (only 3%) - this will be discussed further later. They are more interested in developing farm diversification activities (some 36%, in comparison to 23% of women raised on farms).

Women not raised on farms take on the same responsibilities as their more experienced counterparts ( e.g. in livestock care, administration and machinery use), but were less likely to report contributing skills in machinery handling, and also livestock husbandry. In terms of training, their interests were also broadly similar to those of women who were raised on farms, although they were less interested in leadership training.

5.3 Concluding Remarks

Women's career path shapes their role in agriculture. Whether they chose to follow a career in farming and the agriculture sector, or whether they 'fell into' it, often by marriage, affects their role on the farm. In the former case, women actively pursue their career, are more knowledgeable and confident, and tend to start careers in the agriculture sector because in general, sons inherit land. Then they stay in the sector or move into farming, and bring a wealth of expertise of the agriculture sector with them. Women who 'marry in' to the farm can sometimes feel less sure of their knowledge. They often describe their own role as an 'extra pair of hands', although other observers, men on farms and vets, present their farm work as of central importance. What is clear is that regardless of women's career path, they contribute to the farm through their labour, their off-farm income, their emotional support, their fresh perspective and their diversification activities. The farm is a family business. Whether people chose the occupation or not, they did choose the family, and as part of the family, they play an important role in the family business. It is team-work, and people's roles are valued.