What do you think most people imagine when they picture a farmer? Although the initial instinct of some might be to conjure up an image of a man, according to the United Nations more than 40 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force is female.
And yet, despite encouraging employment numbers, only 15 per cent of global landholders are women – a factor that reduces female decision-making and influence on the sector. Hoping to tackle inequalities like this, today’s International Women’s Day is dedicated to the commitment to equity across all industries. Including farming.
Final year BSc (Hons) Rural Enterprise and Land Management student, Emma Mayers, is hoping her Honours Research Project into women in agriculture not only addresses historic inequalities for female farmers but paves the way for a more diverse future.
After discussing her growing love for agriculture with friends and family, Emma found that perceptions about the industry remained slow to change – something which is now driving her research project.
“I was surprised how others responded to my new passion,” says Emma. “More often than not they’d look at me and say, ‘isn’t that a man’s job though?’
“This then got me thinking about how other women are being responded to when they express an interest in agriculture – do they also feel looked down on by others, or less important than men within the rural community?
“I then decided to investigate how attitudes changed after the war, when the Women’s Land Army played a significant role in stabilising British farming. I wanted to research how we went from relative acceptance and awe for female farmers during the early 1900s, to the attitudes we face today.”
Despite the persistence of damaging stereotypes, Emma believes momentum is now beginning to build within the sector – and she would be right. According to the Office of National Statistics there has been more than a 10 per cent increase of women in agriculture over the last decade – a heartening fact for any budding farmer.
“I think as more and more women become interested in agriculture, the difficulties we face become a more important topic of conversation.
“Over time, women’s roles have changed a lot – mostly for the better. In the past women have been stopped from driving tractors for example, or working with larger animals, but we are moving away from that. However, I do still think the belief that women aren’t capable of this work persists, and that absolutely needs to change. Women ultimately prove these stereotypes wrong anyway – so why the need for them in the first place?”
After delving into the Harper Adams record books, Emma uncovered the University’s historic attitude to educating women and hopes to include the impact of other education providers in her research.
“Positive promotion from education providers will always be key to encouraging women to explore these rural careers and take up new opportunities,” she says.
“During the research for my honours project, I found out a lot about Harper’s efforts in support of women in agriculture. We became the first institution to allow women to study full-time in agriculture, as well as showing great support for the Women’s Land Army. Looking at enrolment records, there have been numerous years at Harper where there have been more women on the agriculture courses than men, so we must be doing something right!”
Not confined to just Harper Adams, these enrolment figures are indicative of a much wider trend. As reported by HESA the latest data shows that 64% of agricultural students identify as women – a fact Emma believes is, in part, due to the increased visibility of female farming role models.
“Strong female role models within the agricultural industry have had a huge role to play in encouraging other women to join the sector – whether that’s young girls who are only just thinking about possible careers in agriculture, or those much further along.
“It’s also about showing different kinds of success for women farmers. It doesn’t have to be that owning your own farm is the single sign of success in this industry; simply pushing forward in a male-dominated sector, working in a career you are passionate about and enjoying what you do is success enough.”
But what does success look like personally to the 23-year-old from Baldwins Gate, Staffordshire? For Emma, it’s all about encouraging others to pursue their interests.
“If I hadn’t come to Harper, I wouldn’t have found my passion for farming and agriculture, nor would I have had some of the great opportunities and experiences I’ve had here. I’d like to hope that other women can feel confident enough to explore what they enjoy and just go for it!
“Ultimately, I think the future for women in agriculture looks bright. Ideally, more women need to get into the sector, but I think those already in it are proving that agriculture is not just a man’s industry, and it is an inclusive, supportive sector to build a career.”