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.

Executive Summary


  • This research was commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore how best to bring about greater gender equality within Scottish agriculture.
  • There are a diverse range of business types within Scottish agriculture, from small crofts and family farms to large estates, agri-businesses and farming enterprises. This research is aimed at agricultural businesses and organisations with paid employees.
  • Gender equality commitments and initiatives have been developed across multiple industries in the UK, but there is a lack of robust evidence about their long-term impact and effectiveness.
  • This research aims to analyse the success and impact of gender equality initiatives in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across male-dominated non-agricultural industries to identify any useful learning for agriculture.
  • The research comprised an evidence review of gender equality initiatives and case study investigations in 6 UK-based companies. In total, 36 semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers and women employed in male-dominated occupations.

Evidence review findings

  • The barriers that women face in joining and progressing within male-dominated industries are well documented. These include discrimination, harassment and social exclusion; stereotyping as to women’s suitability for certain jobs; social isolation, challenges in balancing long working hours and family life; and a lack of suitable facilities on work sites.
  • Businesses have different motivations for undertaking gender equality initiatives: these are moral (the right thing to do); compliance-related (to avoid risk) and business case (diversity is good for business) motivations.
  • There are multiple practices aimed at supporting greater gender equality and the report considered some of the most common, looking specifically at how effective these practices are in improving outcomes for women.
  • Diversity (or unconscious bias) training focuses on increasing awareness of equalities issues and addressing implicit bias. Evidence that it improves outcomes for women is weak, however, and it can promote resentment and resistance from colleagues and managers.
  • Flexible working can help address the challenges women face in balancing work and care, and can support better recruitment, retention and progression of women workers. Yet flexible working can also impact negatively upon women’s career progression where it is viewed as signalling a lack of commitment to the business. Businesses must embrace and support flexible working, train managers in how to manage it and focus on job performance and results rather than just hours worked.
  • Women’s groups enable women to meet in safe and supportive spaces to discuss their experiences. While these groups can reduce feelings of social isolation, there is limited evidence of any measurable impact on women’s outcomes in male-dominated industries. Women’s groups risk focussing on how women, rather than organisations, might change.
  • Mentoring provides women with opportunities to meet and learn from other successful women as role models who have overcome similar challenges. It can deliver measurable benefits in reducing women’s isolation in workplaces as well as small improvements in income and progression. Mentoring is more challenging where there are few senior women available as mentors.
  • Gender quotas are used to set specific targets for women’s participation. These can help focus attention on gender equality, but businesses must also address underlying cultural issues that prevent women from progressing at work. Women often voice concerns that gender quotas create doubt that women’s selection is merit-based.
  • Formal human resource management practices designed to deliver gender equality can help address deep-seated cultural biases and unequal practices where there is transparency, oversight and accountability for how formal practices operate. This requires open procedures, clear designation of responsibility for oversight and training and accountability for line managers.
  • Human resource processes in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often informal but can be well aligned to the needs of individual employees. It is, however, difficult to ensure transparency and accountability where human resource processes are informal.
  • Success in delivering gender equality is more likely where initiatives are underpinned by positive company values, have been developed in context, are flexible in their application and development, are enforced effectively and are evaluated in their impact.
  • Many gender equality actions fail due to their sole focus on women, which can lead to resistance and resentment from colleagues and management. These actions can also overload women with responsibility for change that is rightly the responsibility of their employer.

Case study findings

  • Case study businesses placed greater emphasis on business case motivations: addressing labour and skill shortages; responding to customer expectations; and enhancing products and services through diversity.

A wide range of gender equality actions and initiatives were identified by businesses, including:

  • Embedding gender equality in company values, culture and structures: emphasising values during induction and appraisals; promotion of values and equalities approach in company branding and all communications; and developing an equalities strategy with designated teams (involving employees) responsible for their operation.
  • Gender Equality Action Plans: development of priority areas for action; implementation plans; training on equalities issues and holding periodic equalities events.
  • Reviewing and revising policies to remove gendered language, and the development of new policies: for example, in relation to flexible working, enhanced parental and maternity leave and menopause policies.
  • Recruitment and selection: use of gender bias de-coding software and photos of women in job adverts; use of a wide range of recruitment channels to engage a more diverse workforce; gender blind CVs for shortlisting; mixed gender shortlists; new manager training; mixed gender and non-management panel members; focus on core values, attitude and willingness to learn as job criteria; and equalities-based social media and PR campaigns.
  • Work environment: separate restrooms for women and development of informal breakout spaces to support employees in discussing personal issues.
  • Flexible working: including working from home; formal flexible working policies; informal flexible working arrangements on an individual basis; flexible shift systems; part-time working arrangements following maternity leave; and active promotion of flexible working at recruitment, induction and on the company website.
  • Training and development: transparent career progression routes; mentoring for new staff; opportunities to mentor; and training to support mentoring.
  • Progression: efforts to ensure merit-based promotion; early Continuing Professional Development support for women to consider potential negative effects of care related leave; and secondment opportunities for women.
  • Improving equality in the talent pipeline: encouraging women through graduate and apprenticeship programmes; Board training or equivalent for women; active recruiting of women at Board level; campaigns promoting women in the industry; involvement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Ambassadors programme; working with schools and community partnerships; equalities networking events; and working with supply chain partners to better embed equalities.

In terms of implementing change, monitoring progress and evaluating impact, case study businesses stated the following:

  • In implementing change, case study businesses stressed the importance of: driving equalities awareness and action from leadership team level; ensuring accountability for actions; taking an incremental approach that promotes the business case for action; seeking views from employees and acting on employee inputs; avoiding a tone of ‘enforcement’; providing appropriate training; using briefings and other communications; learning from internal and external sources; working with other supportive organisations, including those who accredit and recognise gender equality actions; and avoiding approaches that are only available to women.
  • Case study businesses collected, monitored and analysed a wide range of relevant gender equality data; published this data internally; conducted general and equalities-specific surveys; discussed measurements at internal forums where employees are represented; encouraged feedback through a management open door policy, feedback email addresses and briefings; and discussed progress through yearly performance appraisals, including questions on whether employees feel they are treated equally.
  • Assessing the impact and effectiveness of gender equality actions remains challenging. Case study businesses could point to many substantive improvements in their gender balance, more women in male-dominated occupations and in processes, such as recruitment and career progression. Employee engagement scores to diversity questions had improved and employees interviewed were able to highlight their own more positive experiences. Crucially, some businesses reported an absence of resistance to equalities actions as an indicator of the effectiveness of their gradual approach, and some reported a more positive external reputation through engaging with equalities organisations.
  • Frustrations continue to exist: senior roles remain predominantly male; flexible working remains challenging for site-based work; some women are concerned about being the ‘token female’ and others have anxieties over having less time than men to invest in their careers; and women struggle to find time to participate in equalities initiatives. It was difficult to identify the effectiveness of business engagement with the wider education system on equalities issues.

Answering the 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?

  • The case studies show that progress in gender equality in male-dominated industries, while challenging, is possible. While some roles (particularly senior roles) are harder to adapt than others, change becomes easier over time as progress becomes visible.
  • The key to successful action is an understanding of the business case for change; developing a strategic approach; embedding equalities within formal human resources practices; supporting individuals with caring responsibilities; recruiting young women through graduate and apprenticeship routes; and learning and sharing experiences with other organisations.
  • What does not work is setting unachievable numerical targets or quotas, tokenism in showcasing individual women in traditionally male-dominated roles or any suggestion of discriminating in favour of women.
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face particular challenges in advancing gender equality and may lack the people and time to drive and implement change. Being small, however, can be an asset: establishing strong trust relations with staff can support action on gender equality and may be easier in smaller firms. A respectful and inclusive culture led from the top can help deliver positive change and can be easier to communicate in smaller, less hierarchical organisations.
  • Flexible working is key to enhancing gender equality and smaller businesses may have more options to offer this informally than larger businesses.
  • While smaller businesses are likely to have fewer formal structures 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.
  • The opportunities to join equalities networking groups or educational webinars are open to members of small organisations and there is a range of freely available online resources that engaged smaller businesses can access.

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

  • The impact and success of any actions to improve gender equality can be monitored through any or a combination of the following methods to improve business knowledge: collecting relevant data over time; tracking recruitment journeys by sex; conducting exit interviews; benchmarking against similar organisations; listening to staff views; consulting existing guidance and toolkits; and evaluating outcomes, independently where possible.

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

  • Meaningful engagement requires that businesses change. It is not useful to focus on how women themselves might change. The importance of two-way dialogue over any change cannot be overstated and this must involve listening to the distinct experiences and needs of women.
  • The strongest motivator of engagement in the case studies was the business case for change, tailored to the industry/individual organisation and focused on the benefits of taking action and the risks of failing to act. The business case can also engage supply chain partners and industry organisations.
  • There is a need to accept that sustainable change is likely to be gradual. Care is needed to get the approach right and to learn. However, women employees and potential employees have the right to be treated equally now and some actions must be given urgent attention. These urgent priorities will differ across businesses.
  • A business case for addressing the lack of career opportunities available to women in agriculture is essential to driving and delivering sustainable change. Greater diversity of thinking in industry bodies could help stimulate engagement more widely. This could include exploring the equalities profiles of industry organisations since increasing diversity at board/senior levels helps to challenge ingrained group thinking.
  • Case study businesses further ahead in their equalities journey may offer insight, training and guidance on how to make change happen. Advice from other businesses facing similar challenges is more likely to be trusted and compelling.


This research highlights 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; embedding gender equality in values; human resource policies and practices that are transparent, fair and specific to organisational contexts; providing appropriate training to support implementation; establishing clear accountability for delivery and overseeing better equality outcomes; and continuing to measure outcomes and impact.


This research highlights a range of options open to agricultural businesses and organisations to improve gender equality. These options need to be considered by businesses, industry-based organisations and the Scottish Government.

Industry-based organisations and the Scottish Government

  • Use the findings of this report to develop specific actions to enhance diversity of thinking, develop opportunities for discussions and work to increase the proportion of female leadership in industry organisations.
  • Identify and work with organisations who are keen to enhance diversity and advance gender equality.
  • Establish and support a business-led Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) network for agriculture.
  • Work together to develop a gender equality initiative and to deliver engagement events for stakeholders to share and learn from good practice.
  • Support business to business learning from other male-dominated industries.
  • Work with the wider education system and careers guidance professionals to improve information on and awareness of the diverse range of careers in agriculture, with a specific emphasis on how women contribute to the industry and profiling successful women in the industry.


  • Follow a trajectory of improving knowledge and understanding of equalities issues, building endorsement of the need for change, actions to improve gender equality and measurement and evaluation of progress.
  • Establish key baseline measures, including data on recruitment, retention, occupational segregation and gender pay gaps.
  • Ensure that all workplace stakeholders have a voice in relation to equalities issues and understand that gender equality is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Consult women in the workplace on the barriers that they face in relation to traditional ways and hours of working.
  • Audit human resource practices (formal and informal) to ensure transparency, oversight and accountability for equality practices and outcomes.
  • Learn from other businesses through relevant networking events.
  • Develop a ‘business case’ by working with business stakeholders to flesh out what this might look like.
  • Make a clear leadership statement of commitment to gender equality.
  • Consider the development of a gender equality strategy and enable people at different levels within the organisation to be involved in designing and driving it in order to ensure sufficient endorsement of priority actions.
  • Focus on challenging problematic cultures, behaviours and practices rather than trying to change women to fit within these problematic cultures and equipping them to cope with problematic behaviours.
  • Focus on actions that have evidence of effectiveness in producing positive change for women rather than actions that are currently popular.
  • Identify an action plan to address priority actions within an ambitious but feasible timetable.
  • Engage all staff in equalities actions and consider distributing leadership of specific initiatives to maximise engagement and endorsement.
  • Establish periodic measurement of the outcomes of gender equality actions to allow for revisions where relevant, and share information on progress across the business.
  • Use periodic measurement to evaluate the impact of initiatives and to generate a feedback loop that showcases success and concentrates effort on more difficult or long-standing problems.

The workforce in agriculture

  • Adopt a view that equality is everyone’s business.
  • Women should request paid time to engage in a wider industry-led Equality, Diversity and Inclusion network.
  • Women should develop and make a case for positive action to encourage women to enter and remain in the industry by sharing their experiences and challenges.
  • Women should request support in relation to challenges that are specific to women as they encounter them to increase awareness and understanding of women’s experiences.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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