Females in the field: more women managing farms across Europe

Females in the field: more women managing farms across Europe

The number of women in farming has been slowly increasing in recent years. The most recent data (Eurostat 2016) suggests that, on average, 29% of farms across the EU are managed by a woman. But this data masks some considerable differences between countries.

In Lithuania and Latvia, nearly half of all farms are managed by a woman. By contrast, in Malta, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands the proportion of female farm managers does not exceed 10%.

Proportion of farm managers who are women, 2016Source: Eurostat

(Eurostat data code: ef_m_farmang)

This problem is particularly acute as attracting Europe’s next generation of farmers is proving to be a key challenge. Europe’s farming sector is dominated by an older population and this is certainly true when it comes to female farmers – current data shows that just 4.2% of female farmers are under the age of 35. Given that 42% of women working in agriculture are over 65 (by contrast to just 29.2% for men), there is the potential for the gender gap in farming to widen in future years.

However, help is at hand for young women interested in a career in agriculture. Not only will the EU support new farmers through its usual income support system, it can also provide rural development funds to help young women get started in farming. This commitment to addressing the EU’s gender gap is enshrined in the common agricultural policy (CAP): EU countries are required to consider the situation for women in rural areas when developing their rural development programmes.

Farmer standing in a farm building

This support has very tangible effects on the ground. In Hungary, EU rural development funding helped Zsuzsanna Babarcz to modernise her farm, helping her to invest in the equipment needed to move away from manual labour and to increase mechanised production. These investments help European farms to stay competitive and help to provide a good standard of rural living.

Rural development funds do not just help already existing farmers; Elisa Mattioli used rural development funding to help rent 8.5 hectares of land to begin her organic fruit and vegetable enterprise. Having previously worked on her father’s farm, this allowed her to begin her own business. She now sells her produce at local farmers markets in Bologna.

This International Women’s Day, the EU is not only helping to make sure that Europe’s rural areas remain competitive, vibrant and connected places to live, it is also working to make sure that the next generation of farmers and others involved in the field of agriculture better reflects Europe’s gender balance.

Gender equality is also mainstreamed as a cross-cutting issue throughout the research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, which aims at fostering gender balance in research teams; ensuring gender balance in decision-making; and integrating the gender dimension in research and innovation content. Within Horizon Europe, the next Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2021-27) these commitments are strengthened.

According to She Figures 2018 report, women PhD students in Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Veterinaries were 59% of all students in 2016. However, these numbers are unevenly distributed when looking at individual Member States ranging from 33 to 100%. In general, women scientists are underrepresented in research following their PhD. Nevertheless, there are successful women that work in science and can inspire the next generations of women and girls in research.

Three women coordinating Horizon 2020 projects in the field of agriculture talk to us about their projects and the challenges of being a woman researcher:

Christa Kuehn

Christa Kuehn grew up on a dairy farm in Germany and was the first of her family to attend university. She studied Veterinary Medicine at the Veterinary University of Hanover (Germany). There, she did her PhD on genetic variants affecting milk manufacturing properties for curd and yoghurt. Following a PostDoc in Animal Breeding and Genetics at the same university, she spend two years as a Veterinary Surgeon. In 1991, she took up a PostDoc position at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Dummerstorf.

Since 2004, she is the head of her own research group, she habilitated in 2005 and since 2012 she is the deputy head of the institute. In 2018, she was elected as head of the Institute of Genome Biology in the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology (2018), one of the largest institutes on genome research in farmed animals in Germany.

Question: What does research mean to you and why did you chose a career in science? Which hurdles did you face?

My research was always inspired by the question: why are individual animals so different, what is the genetic and physiological background behind it? How can we use this information to better take care of them? At home on our farm, all cows had their individual features – even though they all shared the same environment. I always wanted to learn, to obtain further knowledge and find out, what is behind the differences. Due to my very limited knowledge about academia at the start of my professional life, I did not have a straightforward plan to pursue my career – and I am deeply indebted to my early mentor in Veterinary Medicine and later to the former head of the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology for nudging me to move forward and take the next steps in academia.

In the early times of the scientific career, it was reassuring for me to have the backup-option of working as veterinary surgeon, if the scientific career option failed. Regarding hurdles, I think it would have helped, if I had known the networks and details of academia outside of essential science.

Question: Please introduce the BovReg project funded by H2020 in a few sentences.

BovReg is a project together with 19 partners from 12 different countries and is embedded in the global initiative Functional Annotation of Farm Animals (FAANG). The FAANG initiative follows the lines of the human Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) and Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTex) projects and has the overall goal to annotate the genomes of farmed animals by providing a map of functional regions and elements. BovReg is dedicated to respective work in cattle and has a particular focus on animal health, robustness and biological efficiency. In addition, we also include prospective work regarding the output of our project by looking at its ethical aspects and societal perception.

Question: Which advice would you give girls and young women who want to study natural/environmental/agricultural science or are at the start of their research career?

It is always difficult to provide general advice, because the personal backgrounds of young girls and women will be very different. Maybe, it is three main tips: i) try to learn as much as you can, particularly when you are young, and follow your line of interest in this learning, ii) do not hesitate to show what interested you the most in your field to colleagues higher up in career, iii) try to establish your personal network – persons you can call outside of official office hours for support, advice or simply a brainstorm. Finally, sometimes, it is good to have a back-up option for professional life, if you face unforeseen hurdles and disasters.

Question: You work in the field of genomics of farm animals in Germany. In Germany the majority of doctoral students in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary are women and thereby higher than the EU average. However, following the PhD, the proportion of women researchers is still lower than that for men. Which enabling conditions do you think are necessary to achieve gender balance in your research field specifically and in science in general to support the career of women scientists?

In Germany, particularly Veterinary Medicine became a female domain in recent years in terms of students and subsequently PhDs. To a lesser degree, it is true also for Animal Science. The main challenge in the career is the next step subsequent to the PhD. This is often the same time as having children and starting a family life. But even without this particular challenge, I see that many young, very talented women prefer to leave academia due to the wealth of unclear future perspectives, both in science in general and in agriculture in particular (and even more pronounced in farming animals). In academia, there is no clear career path and single events can block it. It seems that this risk is rated too high, particularly by women. Maybe, because there are few women in higher ranks in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary, there are also fewer networks, which provide fall-back options. Thus, all conditions, which improve networking and mentorship, would be helpful, as well as persistent and sustainable demands for female participation and leadership in research programs.

Carole Moreno-Romieux

Carole Moreno-Romieux has been working in the field of sheep and goat genetics for 20 years. She studied at the University of Montpellier and the Agronomic School of Paris obtaining her PhD in 2003. Following her graduation, she started working at the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment, where she now leads a team of 20 people.

Question: What does research mean to you and why did you chose a career in science? Which hurdles did you face?

For me science is equal to freedom. I am free to choose my research projects and researcher collaboration. I am free to organise my work.

Personally, the main obstacle was the recruitment at the National Institute of Agronomic Research (Institut national de la recherche agronomique, INRAE) as permanent researcher. This difficulty was eventually overcome after my thesis.

Question: Please introduce the SMARTER project funded by H2020 in a few sentences.

Small ruminants in Europe are mostly reared in difficult environments such as mountains/hills, arid, humid or low forage resources areas, where rearing cattle is difficult to impossible. In many of these environments, domesticated small ruminants are the only source of livelihood. Additionally, small ruminants use rangelands and contribute to maintaining an open environment, improving biodiversity and preventing fire damage in dry areas. To maintain these benefits in environments vulnerable to environmental and economic challenges, small ruminants need to be resilient and efficient. SMARTER will use new and collaborative strategies to improve the resilience and efficiency (R&E) of the sheep and goat sectors at the animal, population/breed and system/farm levels.

Question: Which advice would you give girls and young women who want to study natural/environmental/agricultural science or are at the start of their research career?

In my research field, the animal genetic, I saw no difference between women and men. Then my advices are for young people. You have to choose a high-level researcher to supervise your PhD or post-doc. Today, the researchers in agriculture have to be competent in several fields. Do not hesitate to choose two different fields for your PhD and your post-doc.

Question: You work in the field of animal breeding in France. In France, women and men researches are evenly distributed within your field of research. This gender balance is in line with the objectives of SDG5 and the ones of Horizon 2020 gender equality. How did your field achieve gender balance and what can be done in research fields where women are unrepresented?

I think that research is a choice of career, which is more in line with women life in France: not very high salary, but security of employment and flexibility of working time (100%, 80% or 50% can be chosen).

I think that the research interactions in my field are collaborative and rarely aggressive. Consequently, we work together with other researchers in the world, but also directly with and for farmers and breeders.

Today, the reason why the number of women is higher than the one of men in my lab (84 women and 66 men) is due to:

  • the French law for the equality of men and women (who have the same salary at least in my institute);
  • the fact that there are more women than men in the agronomic and vet schools in France. Most of researchers in my field come from these schools;
  • the life quality of researchers in France : security of employment, flexibility of time, quality/serenity of life at work;
  • Finally, the fact that my research field is slightly influenced by lobbying and seek for long-term impacts. We are working for farmers, breeders, society and our planet.

Mary Steverink-Mosugu

Mary Steverink-Mosugu obtained her PhD in Geography from the University of Birmingham focusing on the characterisation and assessment of occurrence and dynamics of macropore flow in cracking clay soils and identification of controls on macropore flow under field conditions. Currently, she works at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre in the Netherlands where she uses her experience in soil and land management in Africa and Europe as the coordinator of the Horizon 2020 project Soils4Africa.

Question: What does research mean to you and why did you chose a career in science? Which hurdles did you face?

To me research means investigation, inquiry, testing, experimenting in a creative and ordered manner with the aim of creating knowledge or extending the functionality of existing ones.

I think I rolled into research more than I choose it. I think the combination of love for chemistry and biology, motivating subject teachers, and a family that believed that I did well in science steered me in its direction.

I think the biggest hurdle I faced for a part was thinking that I should only fit into the mould of a scientific researcher. I must admit that a part of me really wanted that. However, another part was fascinated by facilitating research. I think this is why I love what I am doing currently too: project coordinating.

Question: Please introduce the Soils4Africa project funded by H2020 in a few sentences.

The project Soils4Africa (Soil Information System for Africa) aims at providing an open-access soil information system (SIS) with a set of key indicators and underpinning data, accompanied with a methodology for repeated soil monitoring across Africa. The SIS will target interventions that improve soil quality and provides insight in the impact of the interventions, contribute to the assessment of carbon losses from soil and the identification of areas with high potential for soil carbon sequestration and will provide a platform for the development of sustainable business models by service companies.

Question: Which advice would you give girls and young women who want to study natural/environmental/agricultural science or are at the start of their research career?

I would advise girls and young women who want to study natural / environmental / agricultural science or at the start of their research career to invest in some managerial skills.

Question: You work on Soils4Africa that aims at providing an open-access soil information system for repeated soil monitoring across the African continent. Thus, you work closely with colleagues in Africa. Are there women working in your research sector in the African countries you are working with? How do you think the EU and Horizon Europe can support girls and women in Africa in science?

Yes, there are women in the sector in the partner countries of the Soils4Africa project.

According to Prozesky and Mouton (2019)9, balancing work and family poses a significant challenge to the majority of African women scientists. There is empirical evidence that this traditional role definition is changing in favour of females. However, this may not be changing fast enough to benefit the current generation of female scientists. It would be right to say also that Covid intensifies this challenge.

Horizon 2020 addresses gender in a manner that increases awareness in beneficiary institutions, including those in Africa. I think it would be useful to extend the scope of this impact. I also think that recovery plans for the post-covid period should include the enhanced participation of females in science education that will be relevant for that period, enhancing their career chance.

Related links

Future of the CAP

CAP at a glance

Rural development

Research and innovation in agriculture, forestry and rural areas

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