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Women Grow in Agriculture

October 31, 2012
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
p28 Ags New Voice 2
BASF biologist Jennifer Holland sees more women in ag science.  

Business skills and mentoring help women grow in agriculture

Jennifer Holland is like many plant biologists in the U.S. today. She goes to work each morning for crop science company BASF and, depending on the day, dons a white lab coat to collaborate with researchers in the greenhouse or a pair of boots to visit customers in the fields. She spends her  days supporting new technologies that prevent disease in major crops.

In one respect, though, Holland is not like the majority of ag scientists in U.S.: She is a woman, and most of her colleagues across the industry are men. This doesn’t bother Holland, who received her Ph.D. in 2011. In fact, she says, she has never thought about gender in the context of her profession, or even in agriculture.

"While I have noticed there is a greater proportion of ag professionals who are male, at the end of the day we are all on the same team," Holland says. "We want to make our company a solutions provider for growers and help them get the most out of their farm production."

The reality is that women make up about one-third of ag professional jobs in the U.S., notes Mary Shelman, director of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program. The number of farm  operators who are women is on the rise, as farming today takes less physical strength than in years past.

This transformational change started with education. Females are receiving 50% of the general agricultural degrees today, according to research by the group Education For All Children. Half of all business management and marketing degrees also go to women. More than 50% of ag science degrees were completed by women in 2009, and 53% of master’s degrees in ag science, according to USDA.

A survey of attendees at the Women in Agribusiness meeting this fall showed that of 127  respondents, 39% held graduate degrees. Yet less than 15% of respondents were on an executive team at their company. General employment data does not reflect an upward trend for women—men continue to outnumber women in the work force, particularly in professions that deal with profit and loss. In the general employment sector, women make up 15% of executive  committee members at Fortune 200 companies, but 62% of those are in "softer" areas such as human resources, which rarely lead to a CEO role, says a 2011 McKinsey & Company study.

Brains, Not Brawn. "We need great talent, and that can come from everyone," says Susan Burns, manager of external communications at Bunge Limited. Since women make up 50% of the  population and therefore 50% of the talent, it would be wasteful to ignore women in agriculture.

"When we look out at the new graduates, we are not looking for more women. We are looking for
good talent, whether it is a female or a male. Agriculture can’t be afraid to hire women,"  Shelman says.

The facts about women in agriculture don’t get reported often: Of the 3.3 million U.S. farm  operators, more than 30%—1 million—are women, according to census data. Women operators have increased 20% from 2002, and more than 75% of women operators are full owners of their land.

Globally, 70% of all farmers are women, with the bulk in developing countries; however, they earn just 10% of the ag income and control less than 2% of the land. In Africa, the majority of those who produce, process and market food are women, but only one in four ag researchers is female, notes African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

DuPont is collaborating with AWARD to provide $400,000 over four years to help strengthen the research skills of female ag scientists.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - November 2012

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