by: Hannah Budge and Sally Shortall
Coronavirus has undoubtedly impacted our global society in many unprecedented ways, affecting those from all walks of life. When we were asked to write this piece on what the consequences were for women in the agriculture industry, we decided it would be best to hear it from those who are involved in the sector itself. A focus group was conducted with a group of women from a range of backgrounds who are connected to agriculture in various ways. From the rich data it generated two themes which will be the focus of this blog post: the reversion to traditional gender roles in the family and gendered responsibilities around mental well-being. These will be both subsequently discussed followed by our reflections for future research.
Traditional gender roles in the family
All participants spoke of their frustrations of the immediate reversion to traditional gender roles in the household when lockdown began. For instance, the assumption that despite other household members being home, it continuously fell to the woman to carry out the domestic tasks, such as cooking and cleaning. One participant commented that she felt there had been a regression in her stance as a woman, and that effectively all the progression which had occurred throughout her lifetime was being taken away. This was due to being constantly expected to not just manage a farm, but to then take on the total management of the home with little help from partners and other household members. For instance, another commented that:
I was the responsible functioning adult that had to cook and do the shopping and lamb ewes and calve cows… And they’re like looking at me waiting to be fed.
This has led to extra pressure being put on women, to balance their work and catering for their households needs. For those who have children this includes the extra burden of home schooling and childcare. There has been a wealth of reports regarding this issue, how throughout COVID-19 it has consistently been the women in the parenting partnership that has been expected to take on the role of teacher, or at least the organisation of when the children are going to do their homework. This was reflected in the focus group research, where participants felt that they were again expected to take on much of this role, rather than their partner.
Interestingly, one participant whose other household members were farmers that were also female commented when asked about mealtimes:
Sometimes I will do it, sometimes it might be my Mum she might make it the night before. But it definitely wouldn’t be Joan or Lori who is working on the farm.
It is interesting that here, where the non-farming household members are women, the women farmers are not expected to cook, which is different to the previous participant’s situation. It underlines the gendered nature of expectations around domestic duties.
Gendered responsibilities around mental well-being
The participants also spoke about their different mental health responsibilities related to COVID-19. One woman spoke of the concerns of others that she had spoken to regarding their concern for a male family member and their mental wellbeing during this time, looking for ways on how they could help them. It is interesting that women are assuming this responsibility. Additionally, others spoke of how women had felt they were responsible for the:
cooking, shopping, meds for elderly family, keeping the kids going, women are feeling that they’re the ones responsible for keeping everything going and keeping everyone happy. Umm and that’s a lot of pressure.
This was echoed throughout the focus group members, with participants commenting that although some had not previously been around the household as much due to work commitments that involved travelling it had still reverted back to them being expected to fix everything and manage it all. Furthermore, the invisible mental work of constantly having to make decisions for the family:
Mentally, my biggest issue has been headspace and it’s going to sound, and I don’t mean to sound kind of poor me, the cooking I don’t mind but the having to make a decision every single day for what we are eating, what we are buying at the shops, what time the kids are getting out of bed, what we do during the day is overwhelming, on top of work.
Much of this mental labour is invisible. These are responsibilities that women largely do unspoken, in their head. Covid-19 has increased the amount of this labour. As mentioned, the concern of the emotional well-being of others in the household has fallen again the women in the household, one participant said:
So yeah, so they are needing a hell of a lot of emotional support just now, and unsurprisingly that falls to me.
It is interesting that she thinks it is ‘unsurprising’ it falls to her. She has a much more senior, prestigious, and well-paid job than her husband. But what is evident from her case, and from all of the participants in the focus group is that unpaid domestic labour responsibilities are not more equally shared and when these increase with Covid-19, they fall to women.
We have tended to focus on how women secure entry to a masculine profession and how they are treated once they become farmers. In future we will not just look at women’s success in the industry as a measure of equality, we will also pay closer attention to the division of responsibilities within the home unit. Who has responsibility for what? We will also be mindful of the hidden mental domestic responsibilities, who organises the day and who writes the grocery list are chores that often go unnoticed. The most equal situation in the focus group was the farm where there are multiple women, some of whom do not work on the farm. We will question going forward whether, in agriculture, same sex relationships and same sex households have a fairer distribution of domestic labour and tasks.
Hannah Budge is an ESRC funded PhD researcher at the Centre of Rural Economy, Newcastle University, UK. Her thesis will examine the role of women in agriculture in the Scottish Islands, looking at the barriers in this industry experienced between and within these communities. She is interested in how gender impacts on everyday life in rural areas.
Professor Sally Shortall is the Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy, Newcastle University in the UK, and an Honorary Professor in Queen’s University Belfast. She is interested in agriculture, farm families, and the role of women in agriculture. She has carried out research on women in agriculture for the FAO, the European Parliament, the European Commission and is currently advising the European Court of Auditors on gender mainstreaming the European Agricultural Fund.