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Norfolk Ladies in Agriculture support group is challenging industry stereotypes

Emily Norton of Norton's Dairy, Sarah Hammond of English Peonies and Helen Reeve of Waveney Dexter Beef are part of the Ladies in Agriculture group.

Emily Norton of Norton's Dairy, Sarah Hammond of English Peonies and Helen Reeve of Waveney Dexter Beef are part of the Ladies in Agriculture group.

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The agricultural industry is changing, but many traditional gender stereotypes still remain stuck in the past – so a Ladies in Agriculture group is aiming to challenge preconceptions and offer support to women making their careers on the land.

University researcher Bethany Robertson with her father Ian Robertson. University researcher Bethany Robertson with her father Ian Robertson.

Farming is certainly not the only industry where women are battling dated stereotypes and casual sexism, while balancing the demands of motherhood and family life.

But its generational traditions and physical workload have created particular issues – prompting members of a Norfolk support group to call for a change of culture, better support and childcare options, and engineering solutions which can give women a better chance of success in their chosen career.

Frettenham dairy farmer and cheesemaker Emily Norton runs a Ladies in Agriculture group which has 70 members across the county.

She said the demands on female farming entrepreneurs added pressure to increase profitability – but there was also a requirement for the industry to engineer new solutions to physical jobs, and for more effective child-care provision in rural areas.

“Farming is a full-time job and you have to work with the weather,” she said. “But as a multi-functional woman with a career or a family you cannot sacrifice everything to be able to work the farm at the right time.

“Part of the answer is profitability. You have got to push it to another level to be able to afford to outsource these traditional stereotype roles, and find someone else to do them. I think sometimes there is an expectation that you should be able to do it all.

“And you need better childcare in rural places, particularly if you have not got family locally. I had three days off when Oscar (her 10-year-old son) was born. But even now I still need to make allowances to make sure he does not miss a sports day or something at school and fitting that in means you need some flexibility in your career.

“Part of it is the support structures. That is why running a support group like Ladies in Agriculture is useful.

“And some of it is about engineering, like putting a hose in so you don’t have to carry a heavy bucket. If you can engineer ways to minimise strain it becomes gender neutral management, as well as better for health and safety.

“We have got to change the way we think about gender and think a lot more about some of the role models we are using.”

Members of the group recounted several examples of sexism in their careers, but said it was difficult to know whether to challenge it and appear aggressive, or risk perpetuating the problem by simply tolerating it.

Helen Reeve who runs a herd of Dexter beef cattle in the Waveney valley, said: “I remember going to a trade event and going to look at some mineral boluses for my cattle. My dad was ten steps behind me but the rep waited for him to get to the stand before he said: ‘How can I help you sir?’

“I have always thought I have had to fight a lot harder to get where I am, to prove myself, than some of my male colleagues.”

Sarah Hammond, of English Peonies, who grows thousands of flowers on a field of the family farm in Knapton, near Mundesley, said she married into the farming life after a previous career in social care.

“I think it is important for women who marry into farming families that they have something on the farm that is theirs, so you are part of the whole,” she said. “I think things were much better when there was more childcare provision around. But that was affected by the cutbacks.

“Traditionally, a lot of agricultural roles have been built on physical strength, and we don’t have that strength. But just because things have always been done in a particular way, it doesn’t mean they always have to be.”

UNIVERSITY RESEARCH

A Norfolk student has asked female farmers to share their experiences as part of her extended research on the role of gender in agriculture.

Farmer’s daughter Bethany Robertson, who grew up on her family’s arable farm in Watton is now a PhD researcher at the University of York.

She previously carried out her undergraduate dissertation on how gender affects the working lives of women in farming. Her initial conclusions include that toleration of “subtle sexism” like chivalrous attitudes “avoids stigmatisation but often does little to challenge the gendered culture of farming”. It also says women may be empowered to enter farming, but “defying stereotypes will remain crucial in keeping women in farming and leadership roles”.

She said: “I am really interested in how women juggle the multiple identities of mother and farmer, and how technology can benefit the roles of women within these businesses.

“Women are sometimes seen as a novelty and that is what spurs on chivalrous attitudes. Men might offer to carry out a task because physical labour holds women back, rather than trying to initiate some way of getting around it. The feeling is more: ‘Just let the man do it’. It just reproduces the stereotype.

“Generationally, it is really interesting. I want to speak to women of a wide variety of ages to see if women in their 20s are experiencing this in a different way to those who are further down the line.

“I am looking to speak to women from a wide variety of backgrounds, people who came into farming as a career change, and also people who come in to it through the traditional family route.”

• To contribute to the study, contact Bethany Robertson on br602@york.ac.uk or 07523 953448.

• The next Norfolk Ladies in Agriculture meeting is on November 9 at HSBC offices on Meridian Business Park in Thorpe St Andrew. For more details, contact e.m.norton@btinternet.com.

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