The role of women in Australian agriculture has historically been under the radar – providing support, advice, labour and alternative income while rarely being recognised as a fundamental part of the Australian agriculture industry’s success story.
Today, women make up 34 per cent of employees in the Australian agriculture sector and are estimated to provide one third of all on-farm income and a massive 84 per cent of off-farm income. Despite this, networking and industry groups focussed on women remain a relatively new feature of the industry’s landscape.
"The formal, paid employment of women in the Australian agricultural workforce has shown a strong and steady increase for many years.”
The reality of the value and depth of women’s contribution to production potential goes further than even these figures recognise: women fill a vital role as business decision-makers, advisers, bookkeepers, mediators and succession planners. Women also play a crucial role in diversifying farm output towards agri tourism, food and hospitality ventures.
As a result, many women are isolated from the broader industry as ‘silent’ participants on farm. That trend is slowly changing however as more and more women partake in tertiary education in agriculture and related disciplines and the workforce shifts to have higher formal, paid participation by women.
Women, agriculture and COVID-19
The topic of isolation cannot be discussed in the current landscape without also addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on the agriculture industry, workforce participation and rural communities. While COVID-19 restrictions have typically been far less restrictive in rural and regional Australia than in Melbourne or Sydney, the implications for communities, farmers and their families, who typically have less day-to-day interactions within their community, are significant.
Women are more likely to have taken on home-schooling duties where children, usually at boarding-school are staying home. This has become particularly stressful for those living in border communities.
The broader impact of COVID on agriculture have been more muted: in the face of an economy-wide reduction in gross domestic product (GDP) of 7 per cent in the June 2020 quarter, the Australian agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector saw a reduction of only 1.9 per cent - making it one of the most resilient sectors to the impacts of lockdowns, bettered only by sectors such as mining, electricity and financial services.
The COVID-19 crisis also had an interesting counter effect on employment in regional areas and as the closure of borders led to a reduction in availability of seasonal workers – as result, the number of people employed in agriculture increased 10 per cent in the May 2020 quarter while economy-wide the number of jobs fell 6 per cent. Of that, while the increases in employment predominantly employed more males, there was also a 6 per cent increase in females employed full-time.
While certain commodities such as wool - which are heavily trade exposed and reliant on global growth - are likely to continue to struggle during the pandemic and subsequent global downturn, most major commodities are continuing to hold up well, with some sectors such as the cattle industry performing very strongly. As a result, regional communities and agriculture businesses have performed relatively well throughout the pandemic, lessening the impact of lockdown restrictions and isolation on those same communities.
Women in the agricultural workforce
The formal, paid employment of women in the Australian agricultural workforce has shown a strong and steady increase for many years from around 26 per cent in 1984 to 34 per cent in 2020. Behind this, however, lies a significant split between the number of women in full-time and part-time employment.
In 2020, women made up 56 per cent of the part-time workforce in agriculture but only 26 per cent of the full-time workforce. However, this trend is changing too. In 1984, women were 73 per cent of the part-time workforce but only 15 per cent of the full-time employed. Similarly, the underemployment rate of females continues to fall, now sitting at 8.5 per cent of employed females, compared with 6.9 per cent for males.
Women made up 28 per cent of all managers in the agriculture industry, with the 2016 Agricultural Census revealing over 50 per cent of women working in agriculture were working in a ‘managers’ position.
However, there is also distinct lack of women’s representation in large corporations and industry bodies. Men make up almost 90 per cent of rural representative bodies while women make up only 2.3 per cent of CEOs in Australian agribusinesses, compared with an average of 17 per cent across other industries.
Reducing isolation through education and employment
While significant advances have been made in increasing women’s formal involvement in the agriculture sector, the increase in the percentage of women employed in the sector has stalled in recent years. There is, however, a trend which is likely to see a new generation of women involved in the sector.
While the age of the agricultural workforce continues to increase and many farmers, managers and labourers approach retirement age, many in the industry are asking where the next generation of producers will come from?
Despite a longer-term decline in the number of people employed in the agricultural workforce, the trend since the early 2010s has seen some rebuilding in the number of jobs in the sector. At the same time, the number of women enrolled and completing tertiary studies in agriculture and related disciplines has shown a strong and steady increase. In 2011, there were more than 22,000 women who had completed a non-school qualification in agriculture. This had increased to more than 27,000 by 2016 - an increase of 23 per cent over 5 years. In the same period, there was only an 8 per cent increase for men holding non-school qualifications in agriculture.
Currently, over 56 per cent of the students enrolled in agriculture, environmental and related disciplines are women – and this rate has been increasing steadily for many years. On current trends, this would see an additional 18,445 females with tertiary qualifications enter the workforce compared with an expected 13,646 male graduates.
So what does this mean for the future of the Australian agricultural workforce?
With the average age of the Australian farmer hitting 61 in 2019 and the median age of the entire agricultural workforce at 49 years of age, there are likely to be a growing number of vacancies in the sector. On current trends, there are likely to be at least another 48,000 jobs in the Australian agriculture sector – of those, 27,000 are likely to be women and 14,000 of those in management positions.
Madeleine Swan is Associate Director, Agribusiness Research at ANZ
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The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.