Glass ceiling still firmly in place in Scottish farming

Should women be more involved at the top level in farming? Discuss.

Nicola Sturgeon says the lack of female farming leaders 'needs to be addressed'. Picture: Ian Rutherford

As Basil memorably said to Manuel in the TV series Fawlty Towers about another simple idea, that’s not a philosophical proposition from Wittgenstein. It shouldn’t take long to decide that women are under-represented at almost every level in farming, most notably, blatantly and unforgivably in the Scottish National Farmers Union.

• READ MORE: Farming news

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

That last comment is not new. Several years ago I wrote that the most striking photograph of the week was of 20 members of the then new top team at NFUS.

The all-male NFU Scotland top team, from left: Martin Kennedy, Andrew McCornick and Gary Mitchell. Picture: Contributed

I suggested that a little more holding-in and tidying up would have helped, and no tailor would try to claim credit for anything on show, but that applies to many more of us than farmers.

The striking point was that, of 20 smiley faces, not one was female. A century on from the union’s formation, a century that has seen huge changes for women in society, not only has the NFUS never had a woman president or vice-president, it has seldom had a woman in its top 20, make that 50, places.

In 2017 it still hasn’t. As the recent survey on women in farming – instigated by the Scottish Government – shows, the NFUS has no women members at national, regional board or even committee level.

The all-male NFU Scotland top team, from left: Martin Kennedy, Andrew McCornick and Gary Mitchell. Picture: Contributed

The research also found that women in family businesses outside farming face far fewer barriers to involvement and leadership and that women trying to get involved in the small-p politics of farming usually face opposition and resentment from male members.

No surprise there, only the mystery of how women are frequently the driving force at individual farm level for office organisation, diversification such as shops, bed and breakfast, self-catering, having a job off-farm, still responsible for family, housework and back-up to a male partner and yet have no voice at farming’s top level.

In short, a male farmer’s responsibilities are the farm and farming politics. His female partner? Everything else. There are enlightened exceptions, but no surprise either that one of the main reasons given by the 1,300 women who took part in the survey for their lack of involvement was lack of time.

Another oddity is that, when younger, notably at young farmers’ club level, women have a leading role. In my experience, they organise almost everything. That is because primogeniture still rules in farming. The male offspring inherit and stay on the farm, the female offspring have to leave for the real world and find a job and acquire other skills.

I could have saved the researchers work by referring them to articles I’ve written pointing it out. But they did at least confirm my anecdotal views, noting that passing on the farm to a son is the biggest barrier to women playing a bigger role in farming.

They also managed to introduce the word hegemonic into the discussion. That is, passing on the business to the male is cultural and institutional. It is not a legal requirement and in some countries it does not necessarily happen.

But it certainly rules in Scotland. The question is whether anything can be done about primogeniture or giving women more involvement.

Politics is one of many areas where women have crashed through the so-called glass ceiling while Scottish farming has remained stuck and hidebound.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister, is a prime example and said of the research: “While the report recognises the hugely valuable role that women play in farming it highlights the significant challenges that hold women back from playing an equal and equitable role in agriculture. That needs to be addressed.”

It does. But whether recommendations by the researchers of, for example, a 30 per cent quota of women on representative committees, will have much effect is another matter. Farming mindset is a formidable opponent.