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More women in agriculture (by Hilde Bjørkhaug)

Happy Women's Day! Boys are to a greater extent brought up and socialized into agriculture, while girls are socialized out.

The proportion of female farmers is increasing. According to recent figures from Statistics Norway, there are 6088 women who are the main farmers on Norwegian farms. The headlines on media issues about the statistics are nevertheless negatively charged: There is a long way to go before equality is reached in agriculture.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The proportion of women not as high as desired, neither on the basis of politics nor the industry's own goals. Although there is growth, it is too slow. During the past 20 years, the proportion of women only increased by just over three per cent.

Statistics shows that only 16 percent of Norwegian farmers are women. The statistics also show gender differences in the size of the farms run by men and women and for income on farms run by men and women. Men dominate even more on the largest farms and in the highest income groups. This is a continuation of established differences.

Statistics from Ruralis have previously shown that there are gender differences within some forms of production, such as organic, where the proportion of women is much higher. Beyond that, there are no systematic gender differences in what is produced, whether it is meat, plants or milk that dominates. The fact that there is too few is still valid.

We tend to think of Norway as a pioneer in gender equality. If we compare with other European countries, however, there is little to brag about when it comes to the proportion of women among farmers. The EU average is 28 percent. A colleague from Latvia recently showed, proudly, that they, together with Lithuania, are at the top with 45 percent women.

The image of the farmer as a man is changing in the Baltics. In comparison with other European countries, Norway is close to neighboring Sweden, while progressive gender equality countries such as Denmark have only eight per cent women farmers. The Netherlands is in a definite jumbo position with five percent. Ahead of us are countries from most other regions in Europe. The gender equality country Norway is failing agriculture.

We are talking about a gender equality paradox when we do not see the expected improvement in the gender balance in the labor market. Ideally, it should now be the case that gender is not relevant in agriculture because of the even distribution of women and men available for taking over a farm.

In agriculture, Odelsloven (allodial law) shall formally ensure women and men equal access to farms. Women must therefore, like men, actively opt out of a profession in agriculture. Why do they do so?

The agricultural organizations, the agricultural cooperatives and the authorities have had gender balances on the agenda in different periods and with varying intensity. Active programs with clear objectives have had a good effect, such as focus on women in forestry and gender balance on the cooperatives' boards. When the goals are reached and the program tabs are taken down, it is unfortunately the case that old habits returns, and the proportion of women goes down again.

Research with a gender perspective on agriculture has referred to cultural rather than formal explanations for why the proportion of women does not increase. Images and ideas that favor men into the farming role are still in vogue.

Without there necessarily being a clear awareness of it, boys are brought up and socialized to a greater extent into agriculture while girls are socialized out. A focus on gender equality must therefore also be directed towards the early phase and directly to the agricultural families.

Although the statistical figures do not contribute to optimistic headlines, studies of agricultural households have shown that women who choose agriculture as work and a way of life are empowered and have their own and often new requirements and expectations for the sector. Although many choose traditional practices, women in agriculture also contribute to important innovation in farming and with ideas about what agriculture can produce; food and other products and services based on the farm’s resources.

Why do not more women choose agriculture as an occupation? Research can contribute with knowledge about gender in agriculture, to motivate debate and to policy design of instruments. Maybe we need to ask our research the questions again or maybe we need to ask new questions? It is also the responsibility of the industry itself to put gender equality back on the agenda and use the many good role models that already exist to promote a farming profession as an important choice of occupation and way of life also for women.

March 8 is a very important day to promote awareness of equality between women and men in all areas of society. I use it to cheer on more women into agriculture.

The situation for women in agriculture is very different worldwide. This is a Norwegian perspective.

This opinion piece was printed in the Norwegian newspaper Nationen on the 8 of March 2019. The topic is still relevant. For women in agriculture around the world, visibility, empowerment and independence is needed. Agriculture, food production and discussion about food security will benefit from it.

Please share your own perspectives!


Hilde Bjørkhaug

Professor in Sociology, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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