Professor Sally Shortall

Why women are needed if farming is to survive

Women play a crucial part in the future of agriculture, but we still have a long way to go before their role is fully appreciated, says Professor Sally Shortall.

“There is plenty of research which shows businesses perform better when you have diversity in the workforce, and agriculture is no different,” explains Professor Shortall, Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy at Newcastle University.

“From our research it is clear women’s inclusion in agriculture at all levels leads to more diverse and innovative approaches to farming. With the industry facing a challenging time, continuing to recognise and support women in farming could result in a substantial improvement in industry performance.”

However, despite increasing media attention, the number of female farmers in the UK and Ireland has not changed in the last 30 years and while there are women in agriculture, their contribution is often undervalued or goes unseen.

“In many cases, women are still overlooked during succession planning,” says Professor Shortall. “So those wanting to farm need to rent land which can be costly and unachievable. They are also less likely to access the same levels of agricultural training and education and can feel self-conscious attending industry events.”

Despite these barriers, Professor Shortall has found women involved in farming businesses play an important role. “We tend to see women lead farm diversification and broadening the income stream. We have also found women are increasingly taking a leading role in ecological transitions.

“This isn’t necessarily because women are any more committed to the environment, but they are committed to making a profit without being hampered by the ‘way it's always been done’ thinking. However, in many instances, women are not brought on board until the farm is facing serious financial or environmental trouble.”

By involving women in decisions earlier, Professor Shortall believes some of these challenges would be avoided. However, she believes there are certain cultural norms which need to change before this becomes commonplace.

In particular, she points to a lack of representation on industry bodies: “If women’s roles in agriculture are to be fully appreciated, they need to have a seat at the table. This means they need to be represented and have an active role in farming organisations.

“One surprising finding from our recent research was there is still some exclusion of women and a reluctance from men to vote for them to hold positions of any significance.”

However, Professor Shortall does believe change is possible, particularly when supported by policy. She points to the changes put in place by the Scottish Government following the 2019 Women in Agriculture Taskforce Report: “Government-funded training programmes, which included leadership development for women to take on prominent positions in the industry, were massively over-subscribed. In addition to this, an equality charter for the industry aimed to support diversity by providing unconscious bias training for farming organisations.

“I do believe we are beginning to see progress in how women in farming are perceived, but we must continue to push for change if we are to see agriculture reach its full potential.”

Find out more about Professor Shortall’s recent research: