Women are farmers too: changing the gender divide in agriculture

Twenty-seven years ago, there was legally no such thing as a female farmer in Australia.  

Women play an integral role in the agriculture sector. Picture: Madeleine Stuchbery

It seems an impossible statistic to fathom when you consider women account for about half the population. And the efforts of women in rural Australia in the past 200 years are well documented. 

It wasn’t until 1994, when the Australian Law Reform Commission redefined women’s legal status, granting them the title of ‘farmer’.  

Before then, women were simply called domestics, farmer’s wives, or helpers. 

Gisela Kaufmann, the producer of the Visible Farmer documentary series that has a focus on highlighting the work of women in agriculture, says one story she heard several years ago sticks in her mind. It’s the tale of a father taking his daughter for a ride in the tractor at their grain farm in Western Australia.  

“The eldest daughter, about five, was in the tractor with her dad and he asked her, ‘do you think you want to be a farmer someday?’ The little girl turns to her dad and she says ‘no, because girls don’t do tractors’. This was unbelievable,” Kaufmann says.  

“Both her parents work the farm … where did this little girl get the idea she couldn’t be a farmer?” 

But how can you dream of a future driving tractors when, for a long time, the law wouldn’t acknowledge you if you did? 

The city girl who knew she wanted to work the land

Cattle producer Debbie Dowden, 54, celebrated her third birthday on the ship transporting her family from the United Kingdom to their new home in Australia. Dowden was born to city parents in the market town of Macclesfield, not far from Liverpool. But it would be in Western Australia where Dowden would fulfil her life’s ambition – to become a farmer.  

“Where other girls had Barbie dolls I used to have little farm animals. It’s just something I love, and I don’t know where it comes from, because my family are not farmers,” Dowden says. 

“There was no one definitive moment. I remember when I was growing up, if I knew someone who had a farm, I was so desperate to go out there. During my gap year, I worked on a cattle station up north, so it was not something I was unfamiliar with.” 

It’s an organic, natural attraction to working on the land that gets Dowden up in the morning – a lifelong love affair with agriculture. Dowden runs Santa Gertrudis cattle across the 202,000 hectare property, Challa Station, she operates with her husband near Mount Magnet in Western Australia. The property has long been in her husband’s family.  

Dowden says, despite her passion for farming, she still grapples with lingering social perceptions of women in agriculture, particularly those around traditional roles of women on the farm.  

“One of the things that I found really interesting was the generation prior to me on the land, it was … shameful for a man to have his wife working on the property,” Dowden says. 

“It was a demonstration the property wasn’t financially able for the farmer to support his wife at home. It was a totally different vision back then, where the man was the provider, and the woman was the homemaker. And she should not ever have to work on the land, because that meant the man was not providing for her. 

“It took me a long time to get my head around that. And I thought, thank goodness, I wasn’t born back then. Because I love being out with the animals and out working on the property.  

“And I’d hate it be shaming my husband, by working alongside him.”  

No longer ‘sleeping partners’

In June 1994, the Convenor of the Women in Agriculture 1994 International Conference sent the Attorney-General a submission calling for a renewed approach to how farming women were treated in the eyes of the law.  

According to the Equality before the Law: Women’s Equality (1994) report, farming women up until 1994 were classified as “non-productive ‘sleeping’ partners”. The report found farms were “frequently” not in the woman’s name, with the woman’s unpaid work “inadequately recognised in property distribution”, with “local lawyers … reluctant to act for women in rural areas because the lawyers tend to be tied up for generations with the man’s business and his general farming property”. 

Census figures paint a similar picture almost three decades later, although the industry is showing signs of progression when it comes to women’s participation in the industry.  

The Snapshot of Australia’s Agricultural Workforce report – published by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics Sciences in 2018 – shows the number of women who work in agriculture has risen in the past 10 years. In 2016, the number of women employed in agriculture accounted for 32 per cent of the total agricultural workforce, a lift from the 68,514 recorded in 2011 CHECK COMPARISON, according to the report. Women are also “more likely to be managers”. They traditionally provide the lion’s share of the household’a off-farm income. 

But the report also acknowledges women’s “significant yet often unrecognised” contribution - paid and unpaid – to regional communities and agricultural businesses. 

It’s this contribution which motivates documentarian Gisela Kaufmann.  

Telling women’s rural stories

Kaufmann has spent a career working in journalism, first in her native Germany, before moving to Australia and reporting for ABC’s Country Hour.  

She says she’s always been drawn to the people who work in regional Australia, and started the Visible Farmer initiative in 2018. Using her camera lens, she brings to the screen tales of women living and working across regional Australia, giving the women an opportunity to tell their own story in their own words. The project grew into a 15-part web-series. 

“All the women I speak to, they say they don’t do anything special. They don’t want to be in the spotlight,” Kaufmann says. 

“They think they’re just doing their job; there’s a humility there. But they also realise you can’t be what you can’t see, and the profile of women in agriculture isn’t great.” 

It’s evident through her years of work, however, old fashioned habits and assumptions surrounding gender still exist, much to the frustration of Kaufmann. 

“…there’s still the old stereotype, even if you run the business with your partner, they’ll ask for your husband. There’s still that annoying attitude,” Kaufmann says. 

Visit any livestock exchange during the week and you’ll see this in action. Stand on the tanbark, shoulder-to-shoulder with agents and produces, while auctioneers direct their shouts over the bellowing cattle to the “gentlemen” lining the rails. The men are encouraged forth, to start the bidding for pens of cattle and sheep. The beguiling patter of the auctioneer is often directed not to the women in the crowd, but towards the men.  

Many of the signs affixed to holding pens display two initials in the title; the husband and wife running the farm. And quite often the wife is standing in the yards with her husband, as the “gentleman” bid for stock. 

Perhaps there’s no malice intended with the arbitrary assumption women aren’t participating in agriculture. Maybe it’s simply force of habit. 

But data shows women are a significant population of both rural communities and the agricultural industry, across the supply chain. It doesn’t make sense to ignore the existence of such a vast population of people.   

The narrative of women’s contributions to Australian agriculture has been muddied since Australia was first colonised by European settlers. 

And Kaufmann is not the first person to try to restore the balance of power by highlighting the efforts of women on the land.  

University of Newcastle Professor Margaret Alston’s paper ‘Women: The Silent Partners of Agriculture’ explores the “extraordinary contributions” women have made to Australian agriculture. 

Her report illustrates how scraps of information from letters and diaries from women in the past two centuries have helped inform our view of life on the land for Australian women, but “very little is recorded in official records”.  

It’s a point of frustration for Alston in her report, where she notes the significant contribution of Mary Penfold, a pioneering winemaker whose husband – a medical practitioner – was often absent from the farm. Penfold was left to manage the property alone. She purchased plough shares in Adelaide, made payments to workers, and ensured the property was running smoothly as her husband visited his patients. 

But the success of the iconic Penfolds wine brand, according to Alston’s report, are historically attributed to her husband. 

It’s imperative, Kaufmann says, to show the efforts of women working in agriculture, to prevent others from being dissuaded from farming and agriculture. 

“You’ll lose the next generation of women who don’t want to enter that field,” Kaufmann says. 

“… if you show the status quo, what’s happening now, it will encourage more and more people to consider that field, and to go into leadership as well. 

“We hope to show how varied the field is. It isn’t just the tractor, or cattle mustering. There are so many jobs there, from high tech, or insemination programs, to being on the stock market. The sheer variety of it. 

“We hope to give more power to the women who are moving and shaking, and to show the younger generation there’s a place for you here, if you want to participate.” 

Change is happening

Agriculture is a dynamic, innovative industry, it’s perfect for smart, educated women seeking a challenge. And there’s no shortage of women interested in working in agriculture. 

That’s according to Western Australia government minister for agriculture and food Alannah MacTiernan. 

“Women have obviously always been important. There’s certainly now a lot of confident, educated women taking on roles in farming, and women are much more involved,” MacTiernan says. 

“There are the challenges, the opportunities, the technology and the environment. There’s an intellectual excitement there. 

“You’re always learning, there’s a real sense of excitement.” 

In her role as agricultural minister, MacTiernan interacts daily with people from across the diverse spectrum that is agriculture. 

MacTiernan spent eight to nine years away from politics, before returning to the role of agricultural minister in 2017.  

She was shocked – pleasantly so – when she returned and found a boost in the number of women sitting at the boardroom table at farm group meetings. 

“It was very obvious, having been away, that there had been change,” MacTiernan says.   

“There were many more women … I got the sense the men didn’t need to be badgered into it. They really valued it. 

“There was a palpable difference.” 

But when it came to the number of women participating at a decision-making level, MacTiernan was frustrated time and time again with the absence of women stepping into positions of authority within the industry. 

Sifting through submissions for industry funding schemes, MacTiernan noted the stark lack of applications from women. 

She turned her mind to the number of women she knew worked across the agricultural sector, to the faces looking back at her from the crowd at those farm group meetings.  

Where were their applications?  

“There’s no shortage of smart women, how come all of the applications I’m getting are from men?” MacTiernan says. 

As MacTiernan discovered, when it comes to women participating in agriculture at a senior, executive level the numbers being to peter out. 

If there is such a gap between the women toiling in sale yards, at market gardens, and in the paddocks compared to those making industry-wide decisions, can there be true gender parity in agriculture? 

A report published by Meat Business Women in 2020 hones in on this gap. 

Drawing on data from five countries and 60 organisations, the research shows women account for 36 per cent of surveyed meat industry business employees. But of those surveyed women, just 14 per cent hold board-level director roles within the meat industry, and a mere five per cent of chief executive roles. 

The data is reflective of MacTiernan’s experience – women are under-represented at executive levels within the agriculture industry. 

So she’s setting about changing the dynamic of power by placing women into positions of authority on industry boards and at executive levels. 

“I asked who was on the board, because that’s going to change,” MacTiernan says. 

Positions were awarded on merit, MacTiernan stresses. 

But the point remains, there are countless women of merit who should be considered for these roles. 

MacTiernan refers to the example of Natalie Browning, 37, who was the first woman elected to the board of CBH Group, a major bulk grain handler in Western Australia, back in 2018.  

She was soon appointed deputy chair of the board in 2020.  

“Some of those senior roles have been seen as a reward for service. We’re making sure we’re awarding on merit. And we had no problem finding women of merit to participate,” MacTiernan says. 

“This has expanded the gene pool of people who can participate. It’s twice the pool we can draw from.” 

The Meat Business Women report reflects on the viability of employing more women at an executive level in agriculture.  

Businesses with “diverse” workforces are profitable enterprises. The report shows companies with executive committees with female representation greater than 33 per cent “have a net profit margin over 10 times greater” than companies with no women at an executive level. 

The small effort to place women in positions of power, MacTiernan says, is not only about inclusivity. It’s simply being smart in business. 

“Change is definitely happening at the coal face,” MacTiernan says. 

It’s about attitude not gender

The separation of men and women within agriculture is arbitrary, according to Dowden.  

The only thing which ought to mark you as different is your attitude, not your gender. 

“I don’t think anyone really cares whether you’re a man or a woman, you just get in there and do the job,” Dowden says. 

“You’ll be ridiculed or ostracised if you’re incompetent, or uncaring, or cruel or rude. But if you’re an honest person who’s getting in and doing a good job, I really don’t think that agriculture has separate agendas quite as clearly as the stereotype may indicates.” 

Kaufmann remains inspired by the stories of the women she features in her documentary work.  

And, while the definition of a farmer has changed in the eyes of the law in the past 30 years, in the eyes of one three-year-old girl, there’s still a long way to go before there’s true parity between the genders on-farm.  

Kaufmann thinks of the little girl, riding in the tractor with her father in Western Australia’s wheat belt. It’s a story which surmises the intent of her documentaries.  

“(He) posted on twitter a photo of him and the girl on the tractor, asking for people to send their stories, so he could tell his daughter about women in agriculture,” Kaufmann says. 

“To show her what she could be.” 



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