Women in agriculture - implementing equality commitments: research report

Main findings from an evidence review and case-study research carried out to explore effective ways of bringing about greater gender equality within Scottish agricultural businesses. The research was designed to gather evidence on gender equality initiatives and their effectiveness within business of different sizes in male-dominated industries.

5 Conclusions

This chapter brings together the key findings from both the evidence review and case studies.

The main conclusions include:

  • The benefits of adopting an inclusive approach where gender equality is everyone’s responsibility but especially for key organisational decision-makers.
  • The need for clear accountability for delivering and overseeing better equality outcomes and active enforcement of gender equality initiatives.
  • The importance of ensuring that gender equality is embedded in the formal and informal values of the organisation. Implementing standalone initiatives that do not align with the existing culture is unlikely to have the desired effect.
  • The benefits of focussing on transparency and fairness in the design and implementation of HR policies and practices that explicitly recognise the need to enhance gender equality in specific organisational contexts.
  • The need to measure outcomes and impact. Well thought-out monitoring and evaluation practices are an important component of success in this area.
  • The importance of encouraging meaningful engagement with gender equality commitments by focusing on challenging or problematic cultures, behaviours and practices rather than trying to change women to fit within these problematic cultures.


This research draws on an evidence review of secondary literature and case studies of gender equality initiatives within UK businesses in other male-dominated non-agricultural sectors. This chapter brings together this evidence to address the main research questions:

  • RQ1. What can we learn from case studies of gender equality initiatives in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in other industries and how can this inform the development of a gender equality initiative for Scottish agriculture?
  • RQ2. How can the impact and success of these actions be monitored?
  • RQ3. How can we encourage meaningful engagement with gender equality commitments and bring about sustainable changes within Scottish agriculture and its organisations?

These three research questions are answered below.

RQ1. What can we learn from case studies of gender equality initiatives in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in other industries and how can this inform the development of a gender equality initiative for Scottish agriculture?

What works:

Understanding the business case for action on gender equality

Developing a strategic approach to gender equality

Adopting formal approaches to human resource practices

Supporting individuals with caring responsibilities

Recruiting young women through graduate training/apprenticeship routes

Learning and sharing experiences with other organisations

Drawing on supply chain relations where large businesses can influence smaller businesses

A combination of patience and urgency - change in this area becomes easier over time but action is needed now

  • Gaining clarity around the drivers of action, particularly the ‘business case’, is important and can help engage staff in gender equality actions. Key business drivers across the case studies include industry skills shortages, meeting client/customer expectations and the business value of more diverse thinking.
  • Developing a strategic approach to gender equality, owned at the top of the business, is key. Real change requires high level commitment. Embedding gender equality in the business’s formal and informal values can underpin an inclusive approach where gender equality is everyone’s business.
  • A focus on transparency and fairness in the design and implementation of human resource policies and practices that explicitly recognise the need to enhance gender equality in specific organisational contexts is crucial.
  • Consideration is required to support people with care responsibilities to balance the needs of work and home. Managing the return to work for mothers is important, as is flexible working to retain female talent.
  • Negative perceptions of male-dominated industries were widely highlighted. Businesses need to shift that perception to attract new entrants, but shifting perceptions also requires shifting practice. Evidence of how businesses have successfully taken action on gender equality can be effective in recruiting more women graduates and apprentices and this can be disseminated though industry wide initiatives such as the STEM ambassadors programme.
  • Engaging with sector activities can be valuable in accessing and sharing insight, measuring progress and enhancing gender equality. The case study businesses further ahead in their equalities journey have gone on to provide training, or showcase their actions and approach, to other organisations.
  • Customer/client expections were a key driver of action in some case study businesses. Correspondingly, case study businesses also intended to encourage companies in their own supply chain to take action to enhance gender equality, creating a ripple effect of action.
  • Case study businesses experienced a tipping point in equalities action as the proportion of women increased, which made further actions easier. Increased visibility of senior women helped drive change, reduce women’s feelings of isolation in the workplace, aided recruitment and retention and created greater diversity of people and thinking within teams.

What does not work:

Setting numerical targets or quotas

Actions that risk perceptions of discriminating in favour of women

Singling out women in traditionally male-dominated roles

Focussing only on the most difficult roles to change

  • No case study business saw setting numerical targets or quotas for the number of women staff as a useful form of equality action.
  • Perceptions of positive discrimination were unhelpful and undermine women. Setting out explicitly the difference between positive action to support women (lawful) and positive discrimination in favour of women (which is unlawful) is a useful way of pursuing both an equalities and merit-based approach to hiring and promotion.
  • Tokenism, for example showcasing women in traditionally male-dominated roles through advertising campaigns, was an approach some of the case study businesses had learned to avoid. Women staff strongly opposed being made to feel different and found this approach patronising. This does create a challenge in terms of highlighting women role models sensitively, given their influence in attracting and retaining female talent.
  • Manual, site-based work that involves anti-social hours continues to be more challenging to address. Case study businesses were beginning to think of ways around this, for example, rethinking shift patterns, in part as a result of skills shortages exacerbated by EU exit and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Some roles may not be possible to adapt to the level needed to be suitable for employees with significant caring responsibilities. This requires businesses to exercise sensitivity and creativity in deployment and redeployment within and beyond such roles.

Particular issues for small and medium-sized enterprises:

Business size doesn’t need to matter

The importance of informal flexible working practices

Advantages and disadvantages of fewer formal structures

Fewer opportunities for progression

Accessing resources and networks

  • Although smaller businesses may have less resource and capacity to implement change, smaller size may be an asset. Creating a respectful, inclusive culture led from the top of the organisation might be easier in smaller, less hierarchical businesses. Creating and maintaining the high trust relationships that can deliver and sustain change might also be more straightforward in smaller organisations.
  • Flexible working is a key element of enhancing gender equality and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may have more options available in terms of offering this informally than larger firms, though care must be taken to ensure that informal arrangements do not mask unfair differential access to flexible working opportunities.
  • While smaller organisations are likely to have fewer formal structures in place with regard to people management, taking a tailored, case by case approach to meet the needs of individual women can be effective, so long as attention is paid to transparency, accountability and consistency of treatment across staff. As businesses grow, however, formal systems can help ensure that progress on gender equality is appropriately monitored.
  • Smaller businesses will naturally have fewer opportunities for progression which can limit career progression for all. For women, this can further increase a lack of representation at senior levels, so particular care is required to ensure that any available opportunities are equally available to women.
  • The opportunities available to join equalities networking groups or attending educational webinars are open to members of small organisations in the same way as to large organisations and there is a wide range of freely available online/digital content that engaged small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can access.[9]

RQ2. How can the impact and success of these actions be monitored?

Collect and analyse key statistics over time

Track successful recruitment routes for female new recruits

Conduct exit interviews for female leavers

Benchmark against similar organisations

Ensure staff have the opportunity to give feedback and share views through formal and informal methods.

Consult existing guidance and industry level toolkits

Consider external evaluation

  • Monitoring key statistics (for example the total number of women or breakdown by job levels) is essential to monitoring progress and identifying areas for action. Analysis could include the following questions: Is there a level above which women tend not to progress? Is there a stage at which women tend to leave the company? Are there particular roles or areas that women tend to leave?
  • Keeping track of the routes through which women join the business is also important. For example, companies may want to invest more resource or attention into successful routes and/or identify particular routes that do not seem to engage women.
  • Exit interviews can provide useful information on what businesses could be doing better to deliver gender equality. An honest conversation with women leaving the firm can help identify blockages and barriers that can be addressed subsequently.
  • It is often difficult for businesses to know how well they are doing on equalities actions. Where data is available, benchmarking against industry standards can provide insight on areas for action and can help in assessing the effectiveness of the business’s approach to equality.
  • Ensuring there are several routes through which staff can share detailed feedback on their experience of specific actions that have been taken is important, as well as listening to their more general views. This can be done formally (for example, through staff surveys) or more informally through line managers.
  • Industry level toolkits, Charters and Pledges can provide useful guidance on how to approach the measurement of impact and success.[10]
  • External organisations may be able to provide support in evaluating the impact of equalities action taken, though this is likely to come at a cost. Publicly funded business support services might be able to develop or make available appropriate tools and measures to help agricultural businesses.

RQ3. How do we encourage meaningful engagement with gender equality commitments and bring about long-term sustainable changes within Scottish agriculture and its organisations?

Organisations need to adapt, not individuals

Focus on equality rather than singling out women

The importance of encouraging genuine two-way dialogue

Communicating a strong business case can deliver buy-in, engagement and sustainable change

Learn and influence within supply chains

Accept that change is likely to be gradual, but action is urgent

Highlight career opportunities in Scottish agriculture

Enhance diversity of thinking in industry organisations

Increase representation of women in leadership roles in industry organisations

Industry level initiatives to support women across (particularly small) businesses

Explore ecosystems of support available in similar industries

  • It is crucial to recognise that it is organisations that must change in order to deliver gender equality, not women. The actions of powerful stakeholders are the key to creating more inclusive environments.
  • Actions focussed solely on women can and do create resentment and resistance which hampers progress. Equalities actions need to be framed as everybody’s business. While some actions such as highlighting individual women role models can have impact, there is a need for caution over ‘singling out’ individual women.
  • Engagement with gender equality commitments requires dialogue across businesses, and specifically with women. This includes information sharing and listening to concerns and challenges.
  • While gender equality undoubtedly is ‘the right thing to do’, evidence suggests that a strong business case is key to engaging people within businesses, including exploring the benefits of taking action (for example, meeting client expectations) and the risks of failing to act. Gaining a better understanding of the potential benefits of gender equality in Scottish agriculture is an important first step towards sustainable change.
  • Exploring the supply chain within an industry and possibilities for larger players to influence smaller organisations could be a successful approach to delivering industry-wide change.
  • Care is needed to develop the right approach to gender equality as well as time to adapt the approach based on feedback. However, realistic expectations of progress must also sit alongside recognition that women are entitled to action on equality now.
  • This research highlighted a lack of understanding of career opportunities in male-dominated industries amongst young women and recognised the importance of engaging with the education and careers guidance systems. This has also been highlighted by the Women in Agriculture Taskforce in their final report (2019). The STEM ambassadors programme may offer a useful example that could be adapted for agriculture.
  • Increasing diversity at board level helps to challenge ingrained group thinking. Improving Board level diversity in industry organisations could help create a ripple effect that stimulates wider change.
  • All case study businesses struggled to achieve gender balance at leadership and board levels. There was broad agreement that better outcomes over time required taking the correct action now, including encouraging more women to join the industry and retaining them (through careful management of the particular challenges facing women) and ensuring fair and transparent career progression.
  • Case study companies further ahead in their equalities journeys may offer insight, training and guidance on how to make change happen, and should be supported to do so by industry-level organisations. Advice from other businesses facing similar challenges is more likely to be trusted and compelling.

This research has identified significant challenges facing women in male-dominated occupations and industries but has also highlighted evidence of progress that might assist stakeholders in agriculture.

Shifting the dial on gender equality requires:

  • adopting inclusive approaches where gender equality is everyone’s responsibility but especially so for key organisational decision-makers;
  • ensuring that gender equality is embedded in the formal and informal values of the organisation, rather than focus on standalone initiatives;
  • focusing on transparency and fairness in the design and implementation of human resource policies and practices that explicitly recognise the need to enhance gender equality in specific organisational contexts;
  • providing appropriate training to support implementation;
  • establishing clear accountability for delivering and overseeing better outcomes and actively enforcing gender initiatives; and continuing to measure outcomes and impact.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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