Marian Wright Edleman, an American activist for children’s rights, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
If you don’t see people who look like you in important or influential roles, you assume that those types of people cannot be in those roles.
What you see becomes the norm; what becomes the norm is what you see.
Seeing is believing.
And believing is becoming.
But are we seeing enough women in Canada’s agriculture industry for young girls to aspire to? The data – and the first-hand experiences – show that this is not the case.
The slow ascent of women in ag
According to the latest Canada Census data (2016) women make up less than a third (28.7%) of all farm operators, a slight increase from 27.4% in 2011 and 25.3% in 1996.[i] Independent women operators make up 20% of female operators, but just 7.2% of all farm operators (up from 5.6% in 2011). [ii]
The 2020 report Boosting Economic Growth: A Report on Women Ag Entrepreneurship in Saskatchewan[iii] highlights a root cause of these low numbers: “The apparent lack of interest by young women [in agriculture] could ultimately be linked back to childhood. Women…may not even see ag as an option because it is not presented to them as such. These effects of gendered socialization are subtle but have an enduring effect on the industry.”
This “seeing is believing and becoming” phenomenon has a name: the Dream Gap. I wrote about it here, but in essence it boils down to this: by five years of age girls have already begun to develop self-limiting beliefs. This means they stop believing that as a girl they can be or do anything. This self-limiting phenomenon was coined the Dream Gap by the marketing firm BBDO during a campaign for Barbie™ in 2018 and is the result of a combination of barriers that deny or impede girls from achieving their dreams and realizing their full potential.
When I was a kid in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, I wanted to be five things when I grew up: a farmer, a writer, an archaeologist, a buckin’ bronco rider, and a scuba diver.
All but one (writer) was still on the borderline of being considered non-traditional for a girl, but I never thought I couldn’t be any of these things, because I grew up in a relatively gender-neutral home/farm environment. I never remember an instance where I was made to feel different or that I was less capable because I was a girl.
And in many ways, those two decades were the real start of women heading out into the working world (remember Dolly workin’ 9-5?) and breaking off the constraints and antiquated ideas of what “women’s work” looked like and what we could aspire to and accomplish.
Women achieved suffrage in the first wave of feminism (which occurred throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century) but were forced to regress into roles of idealized domesticity in the post-WWII world as men came back from the front and replaced the “temporary” women who had stepped up to perform their factory and office jobs. Discontent bubbled.[iv]
The messages that were beginning to seep more broadly across society in my growing-up years were birthed from the ensuing period of frustration that culminated in the second wave of feminism of the 1960’s and through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Critically, it was during this time that young girls were realizing that it was possible to become whatever they dreamed they could be, because they were increasingly seeing role models on TV and in magazines.
From 1953 to 1990, the labour force participation rate for women grew steadily, rising from about 24% in 1953 to 76% in 1990.[v]
By the time I was choosing my diverse career path around the age of five, Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been campaigning on many fronts for women’s rights for years. During these formative years I was exposed to a number of women in powerful and ground-breaking roles, upon whose careers I could model my trajectory:
In 1975, the year I was born, Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest.
Margaret Thatcher become the first woman British Prime Minister in 1979.
In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, just the third woman overall.
In 1993, the year I graduated high school, Connie Chung became the first woman to co-anchor the CBS Evening News.
And so, I wondered: was I part of the first generation to have the privilege of unquestioningly believing that I could be whatever I aspired to, because I was daily seeing women take on new and influential roles? It seemed like it, and yet before I was old enough to even articulate the feelings, I knew that the one career choice I wished for most ardently (farmer) had a ‘seeing is being’ problem. It was not the messages I received in the home, but from society – and a rural, traditional society that is still only on the cusp of normalizing women farm business owners.
Be, so that others can see
Last summer, I was party to what I hope was a “you can be what you can see” moment – and it was profoundly emotional.
A neighbour (man) had stopped by to return a borrowed wagon and his teenage daughter was along for the ride not because she had to be there, but because she loves farming and eagerly claims her space.
As I clambered down from repairing the silo room roof to greet them, I was struck by the fact that here was a young girl who aspired perhaps to one day run her family’s farm and she was seeing something I had not. As a child visiting other farms with my dad, I never once came across an independent woman farm operator. I had never seen women in my rural community who were not farm wives[vi] work outside of the health (nurses), education (teachers), business support (secretaries), or service (cashiers, waitresses) sectors.
The potential impact of the moment was not lost on me. Conversely, it was the first time a farmer had visited with his daughter and not his son.
If seeing is believing and believing is becoming, I fervently wish that this brief encounter made a mark. Actually, if I’m wishing, then I would wish we lived in a world where it didn’t make a mark, because it was so dang normal.
What will we do differently?
What can we do differently today or tomorrow or next week to create more seeing is believing moments?
What arsenal of actions – not platitudes or motivational speaker talk or feel-good policies that masquerade as action – can we take that will multiply the meaningful presence of women on Canada’s farms?
This is where you come in.
Be, so that others can see and become.
P.S.: In the end I turned out to be a writer and a farmer, so a solid two out of five ain’t bad! At best, I’m a very amateur archaeologist (but what fun I’ve had excavating all over the farm growing up and continuing the adventures with my daughter) and I’m looking forward to a few scuba diving lessons in the summer of 2022. I’m afraid I’m a little too old for riding a bronco these days; I’m not as “bouncy” as I used to be. 😉
[ii] The proportion of women who count themselves in as farm operators has increased since 2001, continuing the trend since 1991 when the Census of Agriculture first started to count up to three operators. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/ca-ra2006/articles/snapshot-portrait-eng.htm
[iii] Fletcher, A., Newton, C., & Grandy, G. (2020). Boosting economic growth: A report on women ag entrepreneurship in Saskatchewan. Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, Hill and Levene Schools of Business at the University of Regina. https://wekh.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/SK-Ag-Report.pdf
[iv] For insights into corporate America’s reasons for keeping women at home and how women felt about this return to “domestic bliss” – cough, cough – read Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’. You will periodically flip back to the copyright page just to make sure you’re reading the publication date right. Many things still have not changed.
[vi] The nuance between the terms “woman farm operator” and “farm wife” may seem slight, non-existent, or even insignificant to some, especially those outside of the industry, but “farm wife” is a loaded term that for many signifies something “less”, something unequal in power and yet equally important in terms of input/output. It’s changed a lot in the last decade, but when I was young farm wives’ work typically consisted of domestic [household] tasks, primary childcare, administrative work, and daily chores, like feeding small animals or milking – none of which involve critical strategic decision-making about future business growth.