Gender in Agriculture: Involving both men and women critical in changing misconceptions

Woman smiling ChinaWorld Bank Photo Collection
© Curt Carnemark, World Bank

Gender in Agriculture: Involving both men and women critical in changing misconceptions

We live in a world of stereotypes and misconceptions. So much potential for agricultural improvement in developing countries is not met because the roles of women, and the access and control that women have (or more importantly don’t have) is not understood. It is often assumed that women will benefit directly from a development initiative or that benefits will automatically trickle down to them. In reality however, these agricultural innovations and initiatives that bring productivity improvements are not adopted because women don’t, or aren’t able to, engage with the program.  Men may benefit in the short term,  but women and benefits to the family are minimal, and therefore the initiative is short lived as without funding there is no incentive to ‘include women’ and it is not accepted beyond the life of the initiative.

Interestingly there are other misconceptions and assumptions affecting gender. When you think of a gender expert most people think of a woman and are surprised when a man arrives. My career has included additional specialized gender training because I felt that for men to realize the need to change their behavior, they are more likely to listen to a man. This links to another misconception that gender is the same as feminism, women’s empowerment, men’s dis-empowerment.  Many men therefore are ‘turned off’ from considering gender because they perceive it to be a threat.

Sometimes we get so certain of gender stereotypes that we forget to thoroughly  understand the actual situation in the specific community. During the 1990′s I worked in Central Nigeria for a non-profit organisation. In the neighboring state there was a development project and we occasionally attended their meetings. In one, a gender ‘expert’ berated an extension worker who had reported that the women did not really farm, they just kept a garden close to the house. Instead of understand the specifics of the community, the ‘expert’ lectured the extension worker on how much of the farm work in Africa was done by women, and that clearly the extension worker had introduced male bias into his assessment. In many cases the ‘expert’ would have been right, but in this case the extension worker represented an area where the women were great traders and would buy from male farmers to sell produce throughout the country. The women in that community did not have time to travel to the farms but keep gardens close to their houses which can be managed by others if they are away. 

Maybe I was lucky, my boss at the time was a woman who was very successful at communicating with men. When it came to gender issues she would sit down and drink palm wine with the men and then ask questions to the group. This stimulated a discussion on how providing their women with greater opportunities would be of benefit to all in the family.

I learnt a lot, but maybe the important lesson was not to assume – not to assume that women will benefit, but also not to assume that there is a blue print with certain skill requirements to bring about gender change. 

I would be interested to hear the experiences of others.


Our Gender in Agriculture Series is written by Heartland Global partner Dr. Andrew Ward.  Heartland Global’s vision is to deliver value-chain and technology innovations that provide lasting economic and livelihood growth, helping communities solve their own needs sustainably.

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Gender in Agriculture Series: An Introduction

photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection 

Fifteen years ago, I observed a European expert asking some questions of a gathering of about 30 farmers in Central Nigeria. The expert had a number of questions to ask, and the answers were not coming quickly as following the translation there was a lot of discussion amongst the community members. The sun was getting hot and one man from the community answered a question in English. Gradually this more efficient method for getting responses was further utilised until he was being asked all of the questions directly. The expert got his answers but the answers were from an eloquent, English-speaking man who was just visiting family in the community rather than representatives of the community, the majority of whom were women.

Women have not benefitted to the same extent as men from agricultural development. FAO estimate that Women farmers typically achieve yields that are 20-30% lower than men#. However, the vast majority of studies suggest that women are just as efficient as men and would achieve the same yields if they had equal access to productive resources and services. Addressing this gender gap would increase total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4%, enough to reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 100-150m. Of course addressing these issues would ensure that future investments in agriculture also have bigger returns.

But how to address them?  Specific gender initiatives and policy influence are required to address cultural, legal and political constraints, but those of us working in agriculture in developing countries, we also have a major contribution to make. To begin with, we need to be clear that gender is all about the relationships between men and women. It should be inclusive of both men and women, it is not something for women by women. I did my gender training because I felt that there are a shortage of male gender experts out there (which is a shame because men are in a stronger position to talk to other men about behavioural change).

Secondly, although it is more work and sometimes harder work, we need to make sure that we are hearing from the whole community, from the men and the women, to ensure that we are considering them and how they will be affected by any changes that we may bring about within a community. I will say a bit more about this in my next blog.

Our Gender in Agriculture Series is written by Heartland Global Partner, Dr. Andrew Ward.  


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