What does it mean to say that agriculture is “male-dominated”?
On social media and other online forums excitement is brimming over female farmers. Women farmers are starting their own farms. They are organizing with other women to create communities of support as well as sharing knowledge and resources. And they are encouraging other women to find their calling in agriculture.
Women are becoming leaders in what has been a “male-dominated” industry, and many (including us) could not be more excited about the important contributions that women farmers are making to ecologically sound and sustainable food systems.
But within the discussion of the increasing importance of women farmers in the food justice movement there is a critical misunderstanding of what it means to say that agriculture is “male-dominated”.
A recent statement made by Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden of the Department of Agriculture encapsulates this misunderstanding. Harden expressed that:
“Women have been involved in agriculture since the beginning of time, but with today’s technology and science, it’s not as much about manual labor,” Harden said, citing examples like [food activist Karen] Washington. “Now you’re seeing more and more women saying, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”
Harden claims that heavy labor demands in agriculture have kept women out of the fields, and they are only now becoming independent farmers because new technologies make farming less physically demanding. This claim misrepresents the history of women in agriculture and leads to a misrecognition of why it’s so important that women are being recognized as farmers.
Historically, women farmers have produced a majority of the food that is eaten by families around the world. Women are the gardeners and the horticulturalists that keep the world fed. According to the UN, women produce 60-80% of the food consumed in developing countries, and as more men leave rural areas to find work in the global south’s expanding cities, women are increasingly left in charge of family farms.
To say that agriculture is “male-dominated” does not mean, as Deputy Secretary harden appears to assume, that men are the primary agricultural producers. In fact, women provide much of the hard labor that keeps fruits and vegetable on our tables, and the demands on their labor are growing stronger.
Agriculture is “male-dominated” because 1) men control global agricultural policy; 2) men tend to control the surplus and profits produced by farms of all sizes; 3) representations of farmers overwhelmingly tend to be male.
Women are taking over farms in the global south, but they are not given the resources they need to be successful. They are forced to take on the labor performed by men, and, in many cases, women are immensely overburdened. Meanwhile, men continue to control the food and profits from women’s labor.
To fail to recognize this reality for women farmers means that one cannot see why it’s vital for women to become leaders in the food movement. We need women leaders in the food justice movement because they can understand the systematic exploitation that women in agriculture face in ways that men cannot. Women leaders are envisioning and building a food system that supports women farmers instead of profiting from their exploitation. We should all be listening to what they have to say.
One good place to hear what women farmers are saying is the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network.