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How to Build a Gender-Neutral Farm – and Why You Should
November 14, 2022

By April M. Stewart, Special MWAF Contributor

There have been a lot of conversations about women’s roles in agriculture over the past few years.

Here’s my conversation starter: if we had gender-neutral farms in Canada, what would that even look like in practice? Would it generate more and better opportunities for women? Would it have unintended, unforeseen consequences?

More importantly, how would it affect a farm’s bottom line?

In 2022 — well into the Third Wave of feminism — we are still having conversations about how women are not equally represented in farming in Canada and do not have equal access to funding and other types of business opportunities.

By now, we should all know that gender neutrality means avoiding the use of language, practices or policies that impose a distinct role on someone based on sex or gender. Applying a gender-neutral lens prevents thinking that certain social or professional roles and tasks are more suited for one gender over another.

Gender neutrality is often synonymous with gender equity because both are a means to the same end. They seek an equal system that doesn’t assign, constrain or eliminate opportunities based solely on a person’s gender.

Louise Erskine, who works at the International Center for Research on Women and is an advocate for gender equity and strong rural communities, fleshes out the concept: “Gender equity on a farm means that we recognize women’s contribution to agriculture, that women and men are represented in all the roles on a farm and in a rural home, and that we redistribute resources like land and access to finances so that, for example, young women who are new to the industry can start out.”

Erskine’s recent research explored true cost accounting, a method of costing food that includes the social, economic, labour and environmental costs of producing and distributing it. Her research led to recommendations for how farm businesses can reduce discrimination and increase visibility and opportunities/engagement in decision-making for farm women.

Three key themes emerged from her analysis: representation, recognition and redistribution.

“Representation means that we need to challenge our understanding of who is, and who is allowed to be, a farmer,” says Erskine. “When women occupy new roles and speak to their real concerns, the industry will be better for it.”

In terms of recognition, Erskine says that farm women don’t do just one job; they frequently do all the jobs — many of them critical to the business’s operation, but unpaid and unrecognized. She cautions that being able to do it all should be less a badge of honour and more of a warning sign of something called the fall-back position.

“A farm woman engages in a sector of the economy that blends lifestyle and business, unlike most sectors. And during financially difficult times, for example the farm crisis of the 1980s and recent commodity price fluctuations, they are asked to take on a lot more off-farm paid and volunteer work to help sustain crippled rural economies,” she says. “It’s in times like this that we see what position each member of the household falls back into — and usually it’s the women of the household who are ‘trained’ to fall back into care work even though they can do any job.

“Recognizing the work women do, often unpaid, to support the agriculture industry is a really important step towards creating a better and more equality-oriented industry.”

Unequal distribution of power and access to cash stems from systems set up long ago. “Most farms were/are familyowned, because it takes a whole family to actually make one viable,” says Erskine. “But generations past decided to design farms, agricultural work and community responsibilities that perpetuate certain belief systems, like gender deciding roles on a farm. We continue to choose this unnatural design with the result that farm women are much less likely than men to receive farm subsidies, be approved for loans and be included in succession plans. We need to redistribute power and access to cash if we want a viable Industry.”

In her 2019 article Gender Equality is Within Our Reach, Melinda Gates writes about the barriers that block women from power and influence across time and multiple sectors. “Many people believe gender inequalities in professional advancement are a reflection of women’s own choices — not evidence of an unequal system,” she writes. “But history demonstrates that women’s choices are often constrained by their options (e.g. unequal access to post-secondary education for previous generations) … As a result, few women became lawyers, doctors and engineers. Of course, that wasn’t because women didn’t choose to enter those fields; it’s because discriminatory policies and practices ensured that they couldn’t.”

The same types of barriers have stymied women’s opportunities to own and manage farm businesses.

What can you do to remove gendered barriers and build a stronger, more resilient industry? to measure ways industries can fast-track women’s entry into and advancement in key sectors: visibility, “the extent to which the sector and its leadership influence public discourse and narratives across society” and reach, “the extent to which firms or leaders within the sector materially affect the way other sectors in the economy operate and behave.”

Since most leadership roles in agriculture are still predominantly male, men’s support is key to driving visibility and reach to initiate and advance less gender-focused practices and systems.

Assessing industries through the lens of these metrics, Gates’s organization realized two things. First, additional and staggered pathways into industries must be introduced in order to create “new entry points” apart from the traditional pipelines that typically “benefit men disproportionately,” says Gates. Second, once a woman has entered an industry and is on a career path, we need to find ways to support their career advancement. “(I)t’s not enough to get women onto a career path if they aren’t empowered to succeed once they’re there,” Gates says.

So, what everyday actions can the agriculture industry and you, as a business owner, take to ensure that we remove gendered barriers to entry points, career advancement or ownership, tasks and roles? How can you leverage your farm’s “inclusive advantage” to build a stronger, more resilient business and industry?

Examine systemic and structural barriers: An early gender imbalance in career entry pipelines “becomes cumulatively more gender skewed over time,” write Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg, the authors of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. Where and when do women start to fall through the cracks? It’s important to understand the frameworks underlying barriers to identify where gender inequality has blocked the talent pipeline. It’s also crucial to understand the difference between equality and equity: equality is evenly distributed tools and assistance, but equity identifies and addresses inequal systemic issues in order to offer equivalent access to custom tools and opportunities.

Examine your biases and blind spots: Every day we make active and passive macro- and micro-decisions based on biases, our innate or learned inclinations toward favouring or disliking something or someone. Biases and gender blind spots lead to assumptions, like perceptions about women’s abilities. Included in Gates’s article were best practices for overcoming bias in hiring, talent management and workplace culture, including “allocating work more intentionally.” This means assigning tasks based on skill and/or interest rather than on gender.

Similarly, blind spots lead to “incorrect assumptions held by men and women that cause ‘accidents’ of miscommunication and misunderstanding and help maintain the status quo in gender relations in companies,” says Barbara Annis, founder and CEO of Gender Intelligence Group.

Gates also reminds us to implement “bundle decisions.” To eliminate the high probability of assigning a role, or a specific recurring task that several people are interested in, along gender lines, you can evaluate candidates against one another (as a “bundle”) rather than on an individual basis. Research shows that comparing candidates against others in a group leads to evaluations based on factors like past performance, whereas when candidates are evaluated individually, gender bias is more likely to influence a decision.

Examine your behaviour: Gender socialization influences how women and men behave from an early age; society implicitly and explicitly draws the parameters of men and women’s roles with gendered lines. Who you encourage to handle specific tasks or roles is largely influenced by the biases and blind spots discussed above, but we can teach ourselves to be proactively aware of them and be more deliberate about how we behave and speak (see next point). Regularly assess whether jobs are typically allocated to women or men and whether your business’s cultural behaviours inhibit employee productivity, retention or advancement.

Women should also examine their own behaviour. For example, do you adequately amplify or sponsor other women’s voices and actions to managers or owners? Do you recognize “intentional invisibility” when you encounter structural gender inequality? A 2018 Stanford University study by Swethaa Ballakrishnen et al. says that this phenomenon refers to “a set of risk-averse, conflict-avoidant strategies that women professionals employ to feel authentic, manage competing expectations in the office, and balance work and familial responsibilities … While intentional invisibility allows women to successfully navigate gender unequal professional and personal landscapes, it could simultaneously present an additional challenge to career advancement.” What are some ways we could address this to achieve better representation, recognition and redistribution of resources?

Examine your language: In his article How Dozens of Languages Help Build Gender Stereotypes, Gary Stix says that “speakers (who) have stronger gender stereotypes in their language … also have stronger gender stereotypes (themselves).” Using gender-stereotyped language can shape how we think about genders and roles. Research shows that if a certain type of language is used repeatedly by several people in a community, it can affect their thoughts and actions, so be mindful of the words you choose.

Examine the opportunities: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Apples and Microsofts of the world did not achieve greatness by relying solely on the knowledge and perspective of one person. The bottom line is that your farm’s bottom line stands to profit from a gender-neutral or inclusive and equitable approach.

As one farm college professor recently remarked after 25 years of teaching, “(F)emale students tend to have more finely tuned business management skills than the guys.” Need more proof? Ammerman and Groysberg (Glass Half-Broken) wrote, “(W)hen groups must wrestle with complex tasks and decisions or harness the collective thinking of a group to problem solve and generate ideas … gender diversity is a boon … (G)ender diversity spurs teams to think more creatively, consider alternative viewpoints and become less prone to groupthink … (K)now how to reap the benefits of having a variety of voices in the room.”

“Farms should be spaces for family members or staff to choose the work they do,” Erskine says. “The answer to fair farming is not to be gender-neutral, it is to be gender conscious, then do something about it.”

This blog was originally published on The Farmer’s Survival Guide for Women blog. Read more like it here.

One of the things we love to do the most at MWAF is share the inspiring stories of Canadian women involved in all aspects of the agriculture and food industry. We celebrate common values, a shared passion for the industry and a commitment to supporting each other's goals. You can also learn what our stakeholders are doing to support the advancement of women in our industry. Be sure to come back often.