There’s Plenty of Room to Grow for Women and Women of Color in Agriculture

, Kendall Science Fellow | March 30, 2016, 2:23 pm EDT
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Following both Women’s History and Black History Months, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the current role of women in agriculture and related scientific fields. While there may be a lot to celebrate, there is still a long way to go to improve the influence that women of all racial backgrounds have in these arenas.

Women in agriculture

Women’s role in agriculture is undoubtedly expanding, as USDA numbers indicate. However, my answer to the question “what is the situation for diverse voices in agriculture?” is that the landscape for women in agriculture is complex and there is certainly room to grow. Infographic credit: USDA.

Women’s role in agriculture is undoubtedly expanding, as USDA numbers indicate. However, my answer to the question “what is the situation for diverse voices in agriculture?” is that the landscape for women in agriculture is complex and there is certainly room to grow. Infographic: USDA.

My perspective on the topic is strongly shaped by just having spent the past several years in Iowa, working on my PhD at Iowa State University. While women in Iowa own approximately half of the state’s agricultural land, they are the principal operators (the person primarily responsible for day-to-day operations) of only 8% of farms – and that number shrinks to less than 1% for farmers of color (not necessarily women of color). It is worth noting that many statistics are reported by gender or by race but often not both, making it particularly difficult to track the numbers for women of color: a reflection of the implicit bias built into our record-keeping, which has the result of making non-white women invisible.

Nationally, the numbers further detail that women and people of color are operating smaller and less financially lucrative farms. Compared to farms operated by male counterparts, those run by women are half the size, receive less money in government payments and on average sell a fraction of the products, according to USDA (and the same trends are true for African American farmers compared to white counterparts). Globally, the situation for women is troubling as well. Women are known to comprise 43% of the agricultural labor force yet they have less access to productive resources (such as financial services, education, equipment and land) than men. It is very likely that women and people of color in the United States are also driven to smaller farming operations because they too are excluded from such resources. Future policies should recognize and address such inequities.

Women in agricultural science

I learned quite a bit about women in agriculture while studying at Iowa State University. As proud as I am of increased discussion for #WomenInSTEM, part of me takes pause from language promoting women to join STEM careers. It is important to recognize that simply cheerleading for more women in science will not solve the complex social issues surrounding why few women find scientific careers attractive, and why those that do often find such careers to be hostile and difficult.

I learned quite a bit about women in agriculture while studying at Iowa State University. As proud as I am of increased discussion for #WomenInSTEM, part of me takes pause from language promoting women to join STEM careers. It is important to recognize that simply cheerleading for more women in science will not solve the complex social issues surrounding why few women find scientific careers attractive, and why those that do often find such careers to be hostile and difficult.

Much attention is also paid to the topic of women throughout the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Here are a few numbers on the reality for women specifically in agricultural science:

My colleague Gretchen Goldman recently wrote about the need for a more supportive academic environment for women in science (versus the constant push toward productivity), one that recognizes the disproportionate impact that family caregiving has on women. This is a real barrier that supportive policies could change, potentially helping to reduce the number of women working part-time as well as to increase the number of women in tenured faculty roles.

Michael Halpern, another of my colleagues, has pointed to persistent sexism in science, unfortunately still a reality in 2016, even if the situation now is better than it once was. Recognizing that gender biases discourage women from science and math, both from an early age and into college, would be a fundamental step forward.

Creating a more inclusive conversation

While more supportive workplace practices, such as family leave, addressing sexism and confronting gender bias in science represent great strides for women, these steps will not solve issues of racism that women of color endure. Although I had many great mentors during graduate school (both men and women), my own professional development surely could have benefited from more women or more people of color in faculty and leadership roles.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently co-hosted a tweet chat with #BlackandSTEM to discuss how science can be better and more socially relevant by addressing environmental and social justice issues forthrightly and competently. That conversation underscored for me how important it is that equity be a critical part of training for scientists. In the agricultural science fields it would benefit all of us to more critically understand how all people are a part of the systems we study. This might not immediately lead to more equity for women and women of color in scientific leadership positions, but it would be a start toward a different conversation and, hopefully, a better future for us all.

Featured photo: Gemma Billings

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