Working in Agriculture: Unequal Inputs= Unequal Outcomes

In the first two posts on this blog we saw that women and men are not on an equal footing when it comes to political representation or to earnings. Last week, the World Economic Forum reminded us that currently, on average, women earn $10,000 less than men every year. Over the next few weeks we will try to uncover just some of the reasons why globally and in every sector of employment, women tend to have less money in their pockets.

There are 3 major sectors of employment: agriculture, industry, and services. These can be further divided into hundreds of classifications but basically all jobs fall into one of these 3 categories. Of course, the proportion of men and women that find themselves working in each sector changes over time. No matter what the trend however, pay gaps persist in all sectors.

Let’s take agriculture for example.

Below you can check out the trends for women and men employed in agriculture since 1980. This data is from the World Bank Database of indicators, and shows employment in agriculture for females as a percentage of female employment in each region and the same for men.

There are lots of options when it comes to viewing. I recommend choosing time as the option on the horizontal axis, check the boxes for the regions that you are interested in for both men and women, assign them unique colours and sizes and press play to see what the trend has been over the last few decades. I have posted the same file twice so that you can view the sheets for women and men simultaneously.

So, it looks as if trends across these regions are broadly similar for women and men. South Asia by far has the highest proportion of women and men working in agriculture, though the trend has been downward since the 1990s. The next highest for women is Middle East and North Africa, while for men this region is tied with Latin American and the Caribbean. For both men and women, in all other regions, the percentage employed in agriculture is below 20%.

[It is worth noting that there are a few notable absences in these graphs. The most glaring is the lack of data for Sub-Saharan Africa for either men or women. For some other regions such as Middle East and North Africa, we only have a small sample of data. Morten Jerven’s book “Poor Numbers” gives some great detail about why these data gaps exist which range from lack of capacity at the national level to collect data to lack of funding. Some data is available for individual countries in these regions. In the quest for good quality, sex-disaggregated data, agriculture statistics have a long way to go.]

So, if there are broadly similar proportions of men and women employed in agriculture (as a percentage of the overall working population of each sex) and both groups have experienced relatively similar trends, why are their outcomes so different?

A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) report found that agriculture is the most important source of employment for women in rural areas in most developing country regions. But women tend to be paid less even when their qualifications are higher than men’s.

Crucially, women’s agricultural holdings are also on average less productive than men’s, an outcome which the report attributes to the fact that women have less access than men to productive assets and resources. Rural female-headed households have on average less years of schooling than their male counterparts and have poorer access to financial services, information and extension services. Women are less likely than men to be legal holders of land, to have access to the best land, and usually have smaller livestock holdings. Women are more likely to hold low-wage, part-time and seasonal employment and are much less likely to use improved seeds, fertilisers or farm technology than men. All of these disadvantages combined means that on average, female farmers, while just as efficient as male farmers, produce less.

Revealing just how damaging this lack of access is to women in this sector, the report stated that “if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%.”

Problems such as this exist in other regions too. A 2012 EU Agricultural Economics Brief found that “women represent a significant share of the farming labour force, but often do not occupy a managerial position. The role of women in agriculture seems to be linked more to farming within the context of a household production unit than to the actual undertaking of an economic activity, born out by the fact that less than one third of all farm holders are women. Farms run by women are generally smaller and less specialized than farms managed by men.” The report calls for measures to enable the closing of gender gaps in agriculture, such as: better childcare, education and health services; better access to credit; more training and specialisation in order to translate women’s hard work into improved earnings. In short, many of the same issues exist for women in agriculture around the World.

When we think of pay gaps, there can be a tendency to think about large companies paying men and women different wages. But the problem is so much more complex. Pay gaps persist because of the type of work that women and men are channelled into with women often providing the casual, low-paid or part-time labour. In agriculture, we’ve seen that one of the major issues has been the lack of access to support services and assets that make farms more productive and increase their potential to make money. Women also face cultural and legal issues over the right and freedom to own and control land and businesses which limits their decision-making abilities (more on this next week). These forces, often hidden from view, create a web of disadvantage for many women which in turn impacts their earnings. Put another way, as long as there are unequal inputs into men and women’s agricultural activities, the outcomes will remain unequal.

Just a little note to say thank you to everyone who has visited and shared this blog with others as well as getting in touch. If you would like to contribute to the blog, please comment below.


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