Women's farming contributions gaining recognition, but gender parity still a ways off: U of Regina report

The report from the University of Regina’s Hill and Levene schools of business found women account for only 25 per cent of farm operators in Saskatchewan, and approximately 30 per cent nationally.

Women were once seen as 'helpers on the farm,' author says: 'Now, there's an acceptance of their importance'

Jocelyn Velestuk farms 3,000 acres with her husband near Broadview, Sask. The University of Regina report found women account for 25 per cent of farm operators in Saskatchewan, and 30 per cent nationally. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

A recent report from the University of Regina's Hill and Levene schools of business shows that while more women have joined the agriculture industry in recent years, gender parity is still a long way off. 

The report found women account for only 25 per cent of farm operators in Saskatchewan, and approximately 30 per cent nationally. 

Christie Newton — a graduate student with the Levene Graduate School of Business and one of the authors of the report — acknowledged that women have always been a part of farming. But now, their contributions are getting more recognition. 

"I wouldn't say much has changed over time, it's just that people are looking at it differently now," she said.

"In the past, women were more seen as helpers on the farm, whereas now there's an acceptance of their importance. Women aren't just working in the house. They're also working on the farm and doing some physical labour that is typically thought to be reserved for men."

Over the course of her research, Newton also found many women who work on management and financial aspects of farm operation. 

"In any other business, managing the books and the finances is a really big part of the operation," she said. "It shouldn't be looked at as any less important in agriculture."

Women need role in shaping ag policy: farmer

One of the report's recommendations for allowing women to participate more fully in agriculture would be to increase child-care support and child-friendly spaces. 

"Child care is necessary, and not just any child care, but child care tailored to the unconventional schedule of farming and business ownership and going to conferences," said Newton. "It's a lot to juggle, so specific child-care spaces would be helpful."

Jean Harrington has been farming near Glenside, Sask., south of Saskatoon, since 1982. She believes the most important factor in increasing women's participation as agricultural entrepreneurs will come from the policy sphere.

"We need to … have more women, young women, find a way to be active in [agriculture] policy — and I don't mean 'women-in-ag policy,' I mean ag policy," she said.

"Because the shaping of ag policy will direct how the rest of the world looks at us. And as soon as the rest of the world sees what we're capable of, that's when we make major advances."

Of 65 national and provincial agricultural organizations, only 12 per cent have a woman as board chair or president, the report found. And more than two-thirds of these organizations have no women at all on their board's executive. 

In Harrington's experience, one of the reasons women are underrepresented among farm operators comes down to a matter of definition. 

"I think on many farms … women are being recognized for the role they play, whether it's more traditional — taking meals to the field, taking care of the kids, running for parts, etc. — as well as being active farm partners, full-on partners," she said.

"But how we define ourselves often has not led to us believing that we are fully a farm partner. And if we, within our farming units, don't say it and believe it, why would the world?"

The report noted that the majority of Canadian farm partnerships do not have a written agreement, which also leads to women being overlooked when their names are not on the paperwork.

'Don't apologize for what you do'

But Harrington hopes the next generation of women in agriculture will make a point to stand and be counted. 

"Don't apologize for what you do," she advised. "For those who like to use social media, show yourself doing what you do, but do it proudly and do it with the assumption that you belong there." 

Progress and a shift toward greater inclusion is not just a women's issue — the report also found that men can play a major role in supporting their female colleagues and challenging perceptions about the industry. 

"[It would help] for men to support that change, challenge sexism and end the diminishing of women's roles," said Newton. 

And while the report identified key barriers to women's full participation as agricultural entrepreneurs — including sexism and discrimination, a lack of access to capital and financing, and "the continued construction of [agriculture] as a male-dominated field," — Harrington is hopeful about women's future in the industry. 

"I have to see it as a bright future. Otherwise, that would be abysmal," she said. "I do think you'll see more women step forward into the roles of being the face of agriculture on the primary farm, and I also think you'll see women step forward in policy."

She's not sure what will cause that change, she said.

"I don't think we're there yet. But I do think we're heading towards that. And young women owning their confidence to step forward is going to be the big step. I see it coming every day."