Women in farming and the agriculture sector: research report

Findings and recommendations from research into the role of women in farming and the agriculture sector in Scotland.

6 Women in Leadership

Key Findings

Women are very under-represented in farming organisations.

Some men active in farming organisations state that men would not vote for women to have committee positions.

Women report having experienced forms of exclusion ( e.g. being asked to leave meetings after the meal was over, some agricultural buyers have dinners for male buyers only).

Women reported they can feel a lack of confidence and be intimidated in all male environments.

Even confident women, such as new entrants, feel intimidated in the environments and not taken seriously. It was also suggested that this is an issue for young people.

6.1 Qualitative Analysis of Women in Leadership

Women are very under-represented in farming organisations in the Western world. This research also finds this to be the case in Scotland. The June 2016 Scottish Agricultural Census found that 36% of working farm occupiers are female. However, as table 6.1 shows, a review of the women in leadership of farming organisations in Scotland demonstrates that women are not proportionately represented in many organisations.

Table 6.1: Women in Leadership of Farming Organisations


Women in Leadership

National Farmers Union of Scotland

0/3 office holders are women

0/9 regional board chairmen are women

0/8 committee chairmen are women [4]

Scottish Land and Estates

Board members: 2/9 are women [5]

Scottish Crofting Federation

Board members: 3/9 are women [6]

National Sheep Association

Board of Trustees: 2/12 are women [7]

Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland

Senior office bearers 2016/2017: 4/60 [8]

Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs

2016/2017 National Council: 4/7 are women [9]

The qualitative research found examples of conscious and unconscious gender bias and overt sexism.

The men's focus group were very clear about the valuable contribution their wives and partners made to the farm business through their farm and off-farm work. The conversation was different when it came to women's role in farming organisations. They felt that some men would not vote women into leadership positions. All of the men in the focus group were active in farming organisations: e.g. the NFUS, machinery rings, the National Sheep Association, etc. The following quote is quite long, but it demonstrates the view of the men's focus group;

Well I've got experience of that because I mean you'll go to meetings and things where people will say women and young people are...talking about the Farmers Union here, and ...you hear people saying it's all male and it is largely. But...I have to say it's very tacit if it is because quite honestly they're crying out for younger people and crying out for women and I don't honestly think any woman would be prevented from getting right up the tree. #1 Men focus group #4

I think they're intimidated. #2

Well I've been around this loop and I always say that...I've sat in the boardroom and said it as far as I'm concerned and its only my personal view, if a woman came forward...I mean they would have to fit in with the way...they would have to accept the rumbustious way people talk to each other and all the rest of it probably unless they could change it. But if they want to come into that bear pit I don't think anybody is going to stop them. #1 Men focus group #1

There's no physical barriers but there's an enormous cultural barrier. #1 Men focus group #2

And folk would'nae vote for them. #1

Interviewer: Folk wouldn't vote for them?

No if they went for positions. #1 Men focus group #1

Do you think that's true? #1 Men focus group #3

Absolutely! #1 Men focus group #1

Absolutely! #1 Men focus group #4

100% they would'nae do it knowingly. They would not do it saying that's a woman I wannae vote for her. #1 Men focus group #1

The men in the focus group were clear that they believed that other men would not vote women into leadership positions. However, they do not think that men do it 'knowingly' suggesting that this is unconscious bias. They went on to discuss whether a couple of women prominent in the National Sheep Association might be able to have representation in the NFUS but thought it was unlikely, because they would not have the time.

Often the most prominent women in the industry are possibly there because there's been family issues, or because they've been exceptional, and if they're trying to lead a business on their own it's very, very difficult for them. It may not be that there's prohibitions it maybe that they just won't get time. #1 Men focus group # 2

It is interesting to note that men recognise that women prominent in the industry are 'exceptional' or the exception. Previous research has shown that focusing on those women who are the exception underlines the fact that they are not the norm. Other research has shown that there are expectations of what a 'good farmer' should be: first and foremost a man (Burton, 2004). This also seems to be the case for leadership roles in farming organisations. The men in this focus group further discussed that a particular 'type' of person is expected to be a leader in NFUS:

Aye it's just expectations in the same way as they choose particular people to be...leaders. I've watched the NFU a wee bit from the outside and other organisations, and they tend to...as any cultural group has they tend to have a type of person, for example to be president that they're comfortable with. They have to be within a range...I've always noticed. #1 Men focus group # 3

All I would say I would just like to chip in there and say that I think you're absolutely right... there are many occasions when I might be thinking it but I wouldn't dream of saying it. #1 Men focus group # 1

The implication here is that women are not the particular 'type' of person expected to lead in NFUS ( e.g. masculine, running a large farming enterprise). Men also recognised that the culture of electing men in farming organisations is deeply ingrained and not something that men might overtly think about or realise they are perpetuating:

No that's right! And I have good friends, good friends, that I know would have that kind of...view and they're nae terrible people, they're good people but they just expect...that's nae right you ken. I'm nae sure. It just...and it's just culture, it changes with time. #1 Men focus group # 2

Men also surmised that women have come around their lack of public representation by stealth. Previous research has shown that this is not a new argument and men often argue that while women are not prominent in the public sphere, they assert their authority in the private sphere of the home. This is presented as justification for the lack of women's public presence and it is even suggested that it is by choice and women have more power through this route:

I think that women have almost accepted it to a certain level and what they actually do is they lead from behind, they accepted that they're not going to be prominent and work in the background and in terms of who is actually controlling things and who is actually having their say through their men I think I wouldn't underestimate the extent to which the women have said we don't want to go and waste our time with these silly idiots sitting around a table talking. But you know...when we get home we'll sort things out! [Laughter] # 1 Men focus group #1

It is interesting that while women are under-represented at the management level of many farming organisations, they are better represented as employees in these organisations (For example, 15 of 30 NFUS staff are women [10] ). This demonstrates the complexity of the issues surrounding women's representation in farming organisations; some men may not see a role for them in senior management roles, but have no issue with women working for the organisations. It is also important to note that women who come in as staff are selected as part of a formal interview process (informed by human resources personnel to restrict discrimination), whereas elected members are democratically elected.

There was a sense that women are more represented in crofting organisations:

Yeah I would say...in my limited dealings with it, there is...quite a masculine approach to how the NFU deal with things...the SCF is entirely different. I mean it feels much more gender balanced and they currently have a woman chair. And they've always had quite a few women on the board so I've never sensed anything...I've been to a couple of ... SCF conferences and I've never sensed any gender balance in how they do things. And there's nothing overt in the NFUS, it seems to be kind of inherent. Maybe because the kinds of people involved have come through the kind of old hat agricultural college, where that was largely for men. And they do...I mean so they have this crofting committee, they really do largely represent industrialised farming on a large scale which has got an even worse gender balance than...and age balance than crofting as far as I know. # Older woman crofter # 8

However other crofting women we interviewed were less sanguine;

I'm the first person on the committee of the common grazings that's been a woman in its whole existence which is about 90 years. There are another couple now that have come on, there's maybe...well there's one other woman and...she's a shareholder now. # Focus group women crofters

However, when it came to participation in training courses, there was much greater gender equality in crofting. We also found examples of gender equality in the Royal Northern Agricultural Society; The Royal Northern Agricultural Society is a not-for-profit organisation and traditionally operates without overheads or full-time employees.

Interviewer: You said that you belonged to quite a few farming organisations?

The RNAS which is the Royal Northern Agricultural Society - president yeah!

She is also a director of the RNAS as well. # Women in agriculture focus group

Women recounted their experiences of exclusionary behaviour in farming organisations:

With a certain business name they attend a dinner every year that's for gentleman only so even though I'm a buyer I don't get to go. So like...all the other buyers it's their night out but I am not allowed to go it! So my producers miss out on a free night out because I don't get to go.

I mean the NFU...well the last one that was doing, was like...right ladies off you go we're about to do the business now and it was like', I'm a partner!' 'Yeah but you'd be really bored!' [Laughter] The thing is he was probably right enough though I wasn't that enthusiastic but I did think it was just this kind of like...I was like yeah I'm a member too because I'm a partner and it was like...I have been to a few ones there where there was a few...a question and answer thing and I actually said...there was a lot of...your mum goes along to a lot of them -

Yeah but then I know that one of the previous ones I can't remember there was a question and answer thing and I asked a couple of questions and then I realised that although nearly half the room was women because a lot of the wives and that were there, who all have roles in the farm, I was the only one out of the women that was asking anything and a lot...well its slightly...I don't know whether they just...as I say...there are something's that are not that interesting but it's also I think sometimes just a bit more confidence to speak up in that kind of… Maybe if it had just been all women then… #1 Women in agriculture focus group

In the discussion above, there are examples of women's role not being recognised and women being excluded. There is also an example of women being in attendance but not feeling confident to ask questions, which underlines the importance of not only counting the number of women present as an indicator of participation in non-traditional spheres. Attention also needs to be paid to the quality of participation. This came up a number of times, even for women working in the agriculture sector and used to being the only woman at events:

We are members and ...my husband is actually quite active in it, I steer clear, because do you know what, it's possibly the one place where you're not taken seriously. So...I don't know and the NFU is the one place where I've thought I don't feel like opening my mouth here because I'm not going to be... # Focus group new entrants

I had some down in Berwickshire this year and I think out of an average attendance of 40 people there was myself and one other girl [laughter], if I was lucky she was there. And because it was Berwickshire I didn't know many of the farmers and most of them obviously all knew each other and you instantly gravitate towards this other girl because... because why I don't know but there's

You've got a common link.

A common link yeah.

I mean it is very...I don't normally get intimidated and I'm quite used to being the only girl at a lot of meetings and think, this, that and the next thing.

I was going to say...it feels exceptionally male dominated and when I do talk about the wider industry that to me is the one part of the wider industry that um...has a strong feeling of being male dominated. # Focus group new entrants

Evidence from this study shows that women who are new entrants and who work in the agriculture sector are strong and determined to work within a traditional masculine industry. The quotes above demonstrate that even for these women an all-male environment can be intimidating, and they can feel they are not taken seriously.

Some women did have views on how farming organisations might engage more meaningfully with women. They mentioned critically analysing communication and advertising; incentives; mentors and targeted initiatives:

I mean even looking at adverts on the TV there was one on the other day that had...a beef farmer for Lidl or something and it was automatically a man speaking on it. Maybe it should be...more women in advertising as well or on packaging...or maybe even…training courses and stuff. Or if there was like an incentive to try and get more women farming whether they would do that or not, government funding should be maybe a woman on the front of it rather than a male or both. Trying to find...women in agriculture and saying 'do you want to come along to this course?' and I suppose meeting other folk as well, I mean there's been a couple of women in agriculture things. I'm going to one in November I think it's by the bank or something # Young new entrant woman # 1

Just have more positive women role models I guess. # Women in agricultural industry focus group

I don't know whether younger people coming through helps or...if they've got somebody involved who was female and could appeal a bit...would give confidence. And whether...for example, the QMS Planning for Profit workshops...really appealed to me. I could go and work through them...and have the scope to work through them and had set all the spreadsheets up so... I don't know whether the NFU...they've got their different...is it their technical and their crop things and whether they set up some kind of working group and actually fostered engaging with women on that one. # Focus group new entrants

6.2 Quantitative Analysis of Women in Leadership

The main survey analysis demonstrated the low percentage of women involved in farming organisation leadership, particularly in comparison to the percentage of women identified as working occupiers. Only 30% of respondents to the main survey reported having been in a leadership of an agricultural or rural organisation, and this was primarily the Scottish Association of Young Farmer Clubs ( SAYFC). In comparison, only 2% of respondents had been involved in National Farmers' Union of Scotland ( NFUS) leadership.

The SAYFC thus represents the most common provider of leadership experience to women in agriculture - some 35% of respondents reported having been members, and 18.5% had been in SAYCF leadership. This was triple that of the next response rate ('other': 6.1%), and 6 times the rate of the third most common leadership experience, the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes (now called the Scottish Women's Institutes: 3.5%). Although about a quarter of respondents are or have been members of the NFUS and the Royal Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland ( RHASS), very few had been involved in leadership (table 6.2a).

Table 6.2a Comparison of women in membership and leadership of agricultural industry organisations.

Current/past membership of organisations Current/past involvement in the leadership of organisations
None 29.4 69.3
SAYCF 38 18.5
NFUS 24.6 2.2
RHASS 24 1.2
Other 10.3 6.1
Scottish Women's Institutes 9.3 3.5
Local farm discussion group 9.3 2.4
Scottish Crofting Federation 9.1 1.1
Local monitor farm discussion group 5.6 1.4
Scottish Land and Estates 3.5 0.5
Scottish Tennant Farmer Association 3.5 0
Soil Association Scotland 3.4 0.1
LEADER 2.8 1.2
Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society Ltd 1.6 0.5

The majority of respondents would like to see more women involved in leadership of farming organisations (77%). They were mixed in their assessments of how difficult it would be to gain leadership experience in farming organisations - about half of main survey respondents (51%) were unsure, with 35% identifying it as 'fairly difficult or very difficult' and 14% as 'very easy or fairly easy'.

However, wanting to see more women in leadership did not necessarily equate to wanting to become personally involved - only 35% were personally interested in becoming more involved in leadership themselves, and less than 4% in the next five years. The qualitative research found that women feel conspicuous and not taken seriously in farming organisations, and this might explain why women want to see more women in leadership in farming organisations, but do not want to do it themselves. However, a promising cohort of survey respondents (35% of respondents to that question, totalling 240) indicated that they would like to be more involved in the leadership of farming organisations.

Table 6.2b: Barriers to leadership (%) (n=668, N2=119)


Main Survey: Not interested in being involved in the leadership of a farming organisation

Main Survey: Yes - Strongly or very strongly interested in being more involved in leadership of a farming organisation

Student and alumni survey (aggregate)

Lack of confidence in own skills




Lack of financial resources to allow for time away from on-farm activities




Lack of time available due to working off-farm




Not welcome by existing male leaders




Required to prioritise time for childcare and children's activities




Would feel too self-conscious as a woman








Women identified a number of barriers to leadership of organisations, particularly lack of confidence and the time demands of childcare (figure 6.1b).

Detailed examination of the characteristics of women who were interested in becoming involved in farm organisation (in comparison to women who are not interested in leadership of farming organisations), demonstrated that these 'future leaders' are notably: younger, well educated, and typically had a lot of exposure to farming growing up. Furthermore, they are already working full time or part-time on their own farms and just over half (54%) are already involved in the agricultural sector outside the farm through their employers. Interestingly, a disproportionate percentage of these women (37%) had inherited their farm. Despite this, a similar percentage to the total sample had no say in decision-making on their farms (21%), and about one third expressed difficulty in getting their ideas included into business development. This suggests that there are two major cohorts within this group - women who are active in their farms and the farming industry, and keen to pursue leadership; and women who feel marginalised within their farm business and would seek leadership off-farm in the broader industry.

6.3 Concluding Remarks

In relation to the proportion of the workforce, women remain under-represented in farming organisations. There are examples of conscious and unconscious bias regarding women's membership in organisations. Men do not believe that women will be elected to positions of leadership. Women feel daunted by all male environments and do not feel they are taken seriously. Women want to see more women in leadership positions, but are less willing to take on these roles themselves. Interestingly, the same argument was made about young people on farms feeling they are not taken seriously by farming organisations. A number of constructive means of how this under-representation could be addressed were proposed, as described in Section 11 'Recommendations'.


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