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.

3 Evidence review

This chapter reviews the existing evidence on gender equality actions in organisations. The key findings are:

Women face multiple barriers when joining and progressing within male-dominated industries which include discrimination, harassment and social exclusion; stereotyping as to women’s suitability for certain jobs;social isolation; work-life balance challenges; and a lack of suitable facilities on work sites.

Businesses have different motivations for undertaking gender equality initiatives. These motivations are moral, compliance-related and business case. Motivations may overlap or combine, though the business case motivations have become increasingly prominent.

There are multiple practices aimed at supporting greater gender equality. The evidence suggests that these vary in their effectiveness. For example:

  • There is limited evidence of the benefits of diversity training;
  • Flexible working can address work-life balance issues but can also impact negatively on women’s career progression;
  • Women’s groups can reduce social isolation but risk focussing on how women, rather than organisations, might change;
  • Mentoring can reduce women’s isolation in workplaces and can deliver small improvements in income and progression;
  • Gender quotas can create doubt that women’s selection is merit-based;
  • Formal human resource management practices can help to address deep-seated cultural biases and unequal practices where there is transparency, oversight and accountability for how formal practices operate.

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.


This chapter provides a review of existing research evidence on gender equality actions in organisations. It highlights the key barriers that women face in male-dominated sectors and what motivates organisations’ gender equality initiatives. It also reviews what form these take, such as diversity training, flexible working practices, the formation of women’s groups, mentoring, quotas and formal human resource management practices aimed at supporting diversity. Finally, the chapter reviews the key considerations in designing and implementing actions to enhance gender equality.

3.1 Barriers to addressing gender equality

The barriers that women face in joining and progressing within male-dominated industries are well documented. These extend to workplace discrimination, social exclusion and harassment (Bridges et al., 2021); sexism, social isolation, long working hours (and the challenges this poses with regard to childcare) and the lack of suitable facilities on work sites (Clarke et al., 2005; Galea et al., 2015). In some industries, women are seen as less physically able than men (Clarke & Gribling, 2008), yet where technology can reduce the need for physical strength, this does not affect widely held perceptions that women are not suited to these jobs (Ackrill et al., 2017). Such perceptions encourage stereotypes and influence hiring decisions, starting a vicious cycle whereby a lack of female leaders, mentors and role models to support women entering these industries deters the entry of other women (Germain et al., 2012).

Other barriers prevent women’s involvement even where gender equality initiatives are in place, including a lack of time for involvement, particularly from primary carers (Burdett et al., 2022), and perceptions that these initiatives provoke negative reactions from male colleagues and management (Sharpe et al., 2012).

3.2 Motivations to address gender equality

There are different motivations for undertaking equality initiatives (Baker et al., 2019), and these are important in shaping the nature of initiatives and any investment in them (Galea et al., 2015). These motivations include:

  • Moral reasons – because it is the right thing to do – sometimes referred to as a ‘social justice’ motivation.
  • Avoiding any legal consequences of not addressing gender equality – so their motivations are around compliance and risk avoidance.
  • A ‘business case’ for intervention that recognises that diversity is good for business: enhancing innovation; increasing the available talent pool; better attracting labour and addressing labour/skills shortages and better serving customers’ needs due to better mirroring the customer base (Baker et al., 2019; Ali, 2016).

These motivations may overlap or combine, though ‘business case’ motivations have become increasingly prominent (Johansson and Ringblom, 2017).

3.3 How to improve gender equality

There are a number of more commonly adopted practices to support greater gender equality including diversity training, flexible working practices, the formation of women’s groups, mentoring, quotas and formal human resource management practices. Each of these practices is discussed below.

Diversity Training

Diversity training, or unconscious bias training, is a popular approach to enhancing diversity and equality in the workplace, and not only in relation to gender (Bielby et al., 2013; Jones, 2019). Such training aims to improve understanding of diversity issues and to encourage people to acknowledge and address their own implicit bias. While diversity training can increase knowledge about diversity issues (Bezrukova et al., 2016), there is little evidence that it leads to improved outcomes for women, and in some instances it has been associated with increased feelings of resentment and resistance towards the minority group (Williams et al., 2014; Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). Moreover, diversity training that emphasises psychological differences between men and women can reinforce rather than challenge sex-based stereotypes and fuel the idea that it is women that need to change, not organisations (Williams et al., 2014).

While deeper engagement with the concept of diversity might have more impact, at present the evidence that diversity training helps women to progress is weak.

Flexible Working

Flexible working covers a range of working arrangements including flexible hours and location of work. Flexible working can be double-edged for workplace gender equality. It can help women balance the demands of work and home life and stay in the labour market (Maxwell et al., 2007; Chung et al., 2021). But it can also negatively impact upon women’s career progression (Glass, 2004; Kelliher and Anderson, 2008) as there can be a stigma associated with using flexible working options that sees it as evidence of a lack of commitment to the organisation (Bornstein, 2013).

Stigma can relate less to the practice of flexible working than to the reason for it - working flexibly to better manage work and home life (which women are more likely to do) might be viewed as a lack of organisational commitment, while flexible working as a career development strategy (which is more associated with men’s flexible working) is seen as a signal of commitment (Leslie et al., 2012; Lott and Chung, 2016). Further, the reason for working flexibly might be less important than how managers and decision makers perceive this choice, so that women are often assumed by employers to be working flexibly for family reasons regardless of their individual reasons and circumstances (Brescoll et al., 2013).

Working hours that are incompatible with caring responsibilities are seen as a real barrier to women joining and remaining in the construction industry (Clarke et al., 2005). Interestingly, while there is evidence of improved flexible working options in construction, this may be as a result of men requesting more flexibility as they take on greater responsibilities at home, not because organisations want to cater to the needs of women (Galea et al., 2015).

The key question is whether flexible working supports women’s progression into more senior positions. A longitudinal study of Australian workplaces has shown that offering more work-life balance practices resulted in more women in management positions (Kalysh et al., 2015) but only after 8 years and where women made up at least 43% of the overall workforce. This time lag may account for some of the conflicting evidence on flexible working, but also shows that other gender equality actions that deliver results sooner are also required alongside flexible working.

There is evidence that flexible working options can be important in helping women balance the demands of home and work life. Any negative impact that can arise when women use these options is more influenced by employers’ perceptions of women overall. Employers’ perceptions need to be addressed, therefore, not just women’s working hours.

For organisations, and supervisors specifically, to embrace and support flexible working (Villablanca et al., 2011; Bornstein, 2013) requires comprehensive training in how to manage it (Moen et al., 2016) and an explicit acknowledgement that job performance is about results rather than long or standard working hours (Perlow and Kelly, 2014). This may be challenging in specific industry contexts (including agriculture), but there is value in thinking about how best to focus on results achieved, not just hours worked.

Forming Women’s Groups

There are many examples of individuals with a shared identity (from the same or different organisations) coming together to discuss their experiences and attempt to change the status quo (Williams et al., 2014). These are known as ‘employee resource groups’ (Jones, 2019), ‘affinity groups’ (Williams, 2014) or specifically in the case of women, ‘women’s groups’. These groups address gender discrimination in male-dominated sectors such as fishery and aquaculture (Soejima and Frangoudes, 2019), construction (Ackrill et al., 2017) and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) occupations (Papafilippou and Bentley, 2017).

Women’s groups can be valuable in reducing women’s feelings of social isolation, but there is limited evidence that they make a measurable difference to women’s outcomes within male dominated sectors (Bridges et al., 2021; Dobbin et al., 2007). As Williams et al. (2014: 464) note, ‘Women’s affinity groups are not intended to criticize the corporation but rather to transform women to fit into and succeed in a male-dominated environment … our interviews give little evidence that they are effective at altering the male domination of their companies’.

To deliver impact on, for example, progression, group members would need either to be in influential positions or able to influence those who are, but by their nature, these groups exclude (senior) men (Ackrill et al., 2017). This creates tension between the option to formalise these groups in organisations (Germain et al., 2012) and their operation as safe and supportive spaces for women to share experiences with those facing similar challenges.


Mentoring activities provide women with opportunities to meet other successful women who have overcome similar challenges and to benefit from their advice and experience (Williams et al., 2014). Mentoring is important as the lack of role models is often given as a reason why women do not enter male-dominated fields or decide to leave them (Neal-Smith, 2014; Simon and Clarke, 2016). Mentoring can provide multiple benefits, such as: reducing feelings of isolation for women working in male-dominated industries (Germain, 2012; Wright, 2016); improving subjective outcomes such as attitude (Jones, 2019) and improving income and progression outcomes (Kalev et al., 2006).

In male-dominated industries it can be challenging to find female mentors for women, leading to some women being mentored by men in senior positions (Williams et al., 2014). While this can benefit women (Ramaswami et al., 2010), the gender dynamics at play might also reduce the potential attractiveness and impact of such an approach (Williams et al., 2014).

Mentoring seeks to help women navigate the challenges of working in male-dominated industries, as opposed to seeking to change their situation. While women mentors can identify the barriers their mentee faces and be able to help them work around them, they may not be in a position to help change the environment itself (Kay and Wallace, 2009).


Gender quotas involve the establishment of a defined proportion of positions (in senior management or on Boards) to be allocated to women. Setting quotas can be a response to long-standing gender inequality where seemingly merit based approaches of recruiting ‘the best person for the job’ in reality drive selection based on similarity to the majority – that is, men (Baker et al., 2019). While quotas have a part to play in the journey towards enhanced gender equality, simply focusing on achieving targets may not resolve underlying cultural issues within male-dominated industries which prevent women from progressing at work (Burdett et al., 2022).

Quota-based systems can also be problematic in creating doubt that women’s selection is merit-based and raise concerns over potential positive discrimination that increases resistance and resentment from others, unintentionally increasing bias towards women. Women themselves report opposition to positive discrimination (which is of course unlawful in the UK) and to any policy that considers anything other than professional competence in hiring or progression (Williams et al., 2014: 454).

Formal Human Resource Management Practices

One potential solution to the limitations of the practices identified above is to develop formal human resource management practices that prioritise transparency, oversight and accountability. For example, there is considerable evidence that where organisations provide clear information regarding salary ranges, the significant gap between what men and women negotiate reduces (Leibbrandt and List, 2014). Similarly, formal career planning procedures can also reduce the pay gap between men and women (Abendroth et al., 2017). One longitudinal US study found that the use of formal job ladders (clearly set out progression criteria and pathways) and the practice of advertising all promotion and transfer opportunities internally before going to the external job market reduced the percentage of white men in senior positions, and increased the proportion of ethnic minority men and some ethnic minority women (Dobbin et al., 2015).

However, not all formal processes work in the same way. For example, the use of written performance evaluations has been found to be negatively associated with outcomes for women in career progression (Dobbin et al., 2015) and pay gaps (Abendroth et al., 2017). Even with the same performance ratings, men received more promotions, higher salaries and additional bonuses, with a stronger effect in male-dominated industries (Joshi et al., 2015). However, the negative impacts noted above disappear when oversight and accountability mechanisms are incorporated into performance evaluation. These might include a monitoring committee of senior members of the organisation with the power to change reward decisions; the introduction of annual pay data reporting requirements for managers; training on how to make effective and fair pay-reward decisions (Castilla, 2015) and explicit responsibility for oversight being given to senior organisational members (Jones, 2019).

Women face challenges in career progression, particularly to senior management and board level in most industries (Hampton-Alexander Review, 2021). They can face greater challenges in male-dominated industries (Clempner and Moynihan, 2020) where women are vulnerable to stereotyping about their ‘fit’ when it comes to promotion decisions (Kaylsh, 2015). Particularly low percentages of women progress to board and executive levels in mining (Baker et al., 2019), oil and gas (Williams et al., 2014) and construction (Galea et al., 2015).

Gender-based HR initiatives as outlined above can increase the representation of women in management and leadership teams (Baker et al., 2019). Having more senior women then signals to potential job applicants (in particular, women) that the company values equality and proactively manages diversity (Olsen et al., 2016).

Overall, while there is considerable evidence of formal human resource processes having a positive effect on women’s outcomes, such benefits rely upon there being processes in place to hold decision makers to account (Jones, 2019).

3.4 Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)

Most research on addressing gender equality – and the adoption of formal equality policies and practices – takes place in large organisations. Research on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) suggests that fewer people involved in hiring receive equal opportunities training, and a significant minority admit to asking different questions and using different criteria when interviewing male and female candidates, being ‘guided by instinct’ when making hiring decisions (Woodhams and Lupton, 2006).

Yet there is also evidence in small to medium-sized enterprises of progressive yet informal initiatives tailored to the needs of individual employees. These include training interventions, reward packages and flexible working, representing ‘ … an individual approach to the management of their female staff, using their personal knowledge of them to work with them on a one-to-one basis, train them and develop their strengths’ (Woodham and Lupton, 2009: 208). This type of approach highlights a flexible and tailored investment in women’s labour as an important business resource.

However, Woodhams and Lupton also reported a number of employers who were comfortable using language which stereotyped, sexualised and patronised women; where women were typecast into roles traditionally viewed as ‘suitable’ and where informal people management practices were used against women. These authors argue that there is a strong case for promoting and using formal policies and practices to deliver gender equality.

3.5 Success factors and key considerations

Success in gender equality actions is more likely where these actions are both robust and revisable (Galea et al., 2015; Lowndes and Wilson, 2003). Robust actions are underpinned by company values. Revisable actions have been developed, adapted from lessons learnt and are flexible in their application. Robustness has two key components. First, policies and practices to enhance gender equality should be well aligned with organisational values. This does not simply mean espoused values – what organisations claim – but also the values conveyed in deeply rooted practices. For example, if an organisation has deeply rooted practices of long working hours leading to promotion, this will likely undermine any flexible working policy that is implemented (Clarke et al., 2005; Kalysh, 2015). Second, robustness relies on effective enforcement, through both oversight and accountability (Ackrill et al., 2017: Jones, 2019), as this helps counteract ‘organisational inertia’ and ‘wilful resistance from frontline supervisors’ (Williams et al., 2014: 454).

Revisability is carried out through context-specific policies and practices (i.e. that meet the needs of specific locations and workforces) (Gopal et al., 2020) and that are flexible and adaptable over time in response to evaluation. The challenge, however, is that many organisations fail to evaluate their diversity practices. Baker et al. (2019) report that 50% of respondents in their research were unaware of any mechanisms in place that measured progress on gender equality.

Many gender equality actions fail due to their sole focus on women. In construction, Galea et al. (2015: 380) explains: ‘Most interviewees associated the issue of gender equality with women, rather than an issue concerning both men and women’. This is problematic for three reasons:

  • It can foster resistance and resentment in the wider workforce when equality actions are introduced, and women might disengage from these actions to avoid stigma and resentment from colleagues and management (Sharp et al., 2012). Avoiding this perverse outcome requires framing and communicating gender-enhancing initiatives in an inclusive way (Cundiff et al., 2018).
  • Focussing only on women places the burden of bringing about change on women alone – sometimes referred to as a ‘minority tax’ – where underrepresented groups end up being responsible for attempting to change the unjust system to which they are victim (Burdett et al., 2021), despite lacking the power to drive change (Bridges et al., 2021; Galea et al., 2015).
  • It suggests that women themselves need to change to fit male-dominated cultures rather than acknowledging the need for change at an organisational level. This is evident from ‘bottom-up’ or ‘employee-level’ approaches to gender equality such as mentoring and women’s groups. Formal human resource management practices are ‘top-down’ and can be more effective in driving positive change (Laver et al., 2018).


Enhancing gender equality in male-dominated industries remains a major challenge in many countries. Despite decades of work and the development of national, sectoral and organisation level initatives, limited progress in shifting women’s outcomes is evident. There is no silver bullet to deliver gender equality in male-dominated industries. There is, however, a wealth of evidence of what practices might drive positive change. This evidence highlights the potential benefits of:

  • A 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.
  • 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.
  • A focus 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.
  • Appropriate training to support implementation.
  • Clear accountability for delivering and overseeing better equality outcomes and active enforcement of gender equality initiatives.
  • Measuring outcomes and impact.


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