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.