03 May 2023, UK: By Professor Lee-Ann Sutherland, Director of International Land Use Study Centre at The James Hutton Institute. This article first appeared in The Herald on 26 April 2023.
Read the below research responses, and try not to imagine you are in the 1950s:
- female board members often felt like the “token woman”
- there is an “assumption all leaders are men, and an expectation that women would “go off on maternity leave” amongst male colleagues
- one respondent said she felt “indoctrinated into the male mindset” and that male colleagues could forget she is in the room and let slip the “odd sexist remark”
- many women “use humour as a way of dealing with sexism” and these “persistent forms of gender bias” have a detrimental effect on women working in the industry
Welcome to what life still looks and feels like for hundreds of women, in Scottish agriculture.
Those real responses come from a study I co-developed with my Hutton colleague Dr Annie McKee ‘The Changing Role of Women in Farming, Crofting, and the Agricultural Industry: 2016-2021’ – which was then followed up by actions taken by the Scottish Government’s Women in Agriculture Task Force.
They starkly show how some of worst kinds of gender bias, tokenism and blatant sexism were still alive and thriving in farmyards right across the land. Having conducted a survey of 1200 women working in agriculture in 2016, I was not surprised, but continue to be disappointed that such outdated attitudes still linger.
My concern is matched by the Scottish Government. Since it’s 50:50 by 2020 commitment to gender equality in board rooms, it commissioned the Women in Agriculture Task Force, which produced a series of recommendations, culminating earlier this month in the launch of aground-breaking Women in agriculture – leadership programme. This is open just to women, and aimed squarely at ensuring negative mindsets prevalent in the industry can finally be confined to the history books, where they belong.
The programme involves business training, working with industry role models, meeting and collaborating with other women in the industry, and providing opportunities to build powerful, personal support networks that can act as steppingstones to not only more important roles on farms, but wider board or leadership industry roles too.
But one of the most-telling conclusions of our study also highlighted how one barrier particularly arguably sits at the very root of this outdated thinking: succession planning on farms, or in simple language, ‘who gets to inherit?’
There is a lack of women in leadership roles in Scottish agriculture – from small family-owned holdings right up to national-level farming organisations in the industry – because women in farming families and firms have long been overlooked in preference to male siblings, when it comes to inheriting the business.
Our researchers found this ‘male-heir’ mindset is still firmly entrenched in Scottish agriculture, and from an early age; and that daughters and wives still often get overlooked automatically in preference to male siblings.
Our own and other findings have also shown consistently, when a woman is chosen as a successor, it is invariably a critical turning point, as they are then much more likely to make a balanced choice over who succeeds them.
In a survey by The James Hutton Institute, funded by Scottish Government, only 15% of respondents identified women successors. However, where a woman had inherited the farm, that percentage rose to 50% – i.e. women successors were democratic in their choice of successor.
In agriculture, for centuries, potential male successors have often been identified when they are children, and specifically trained or offered opportunities to develop social networks and skills.
This isn’t to say women aren’t being encouraged into agriculture. In fact, young women often take farming and agriculture qualifications, and some do have successful working careers within the industry – but generally not as successors to the family farm or business, underscoring the dominance and image of men as farmers.
The most recent Scottish Agricultural Census showed 40% of farm owner-occupiers are women. But when asked to identify the “primary farmer”, just 8% of farms in Scotland identified a woman, according to Eurostat – close to the bottom of the European league table, lagging well behind England where 14% of women were identified as the primary.
Hutton’s ‘Changing Role’ study found more than half agreed “inheritance patterns” were a significant barrier to women’s choices about farming careers, with successors agreeing most, followed by those who left their family farm to start their own.
It’s important to add here, it is not all doom and dark clouds hanging over gender equality in Scottish agriculture. Our study did reveal there has been a change in the right direction regards the level of recruitment and the role of women in agricultural leadership.
Some said they felt organisations were making efforts towards greater gender equality, for example by recruiting female board members, including those from non-farming backgrounds.
But against that overarching backdrop of ongoing cultural practices on succession, a re-shift in leadership thinking is long, long overdue. We are confident the upcoming leadership programme will provide a significant skills and confidence boost to any woman who takes it – and kickstart a much-needed rebalancing in a very fabric of Scottish agriculture.
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