On the back of the strong global momentum driving the movements #MeToo and #TimesUp, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is #PressforProgess.
And nowhere is this progress needed more than in agriculture.
While women’s earnings are lower than those of men in all sectors, the agricultural wage gap is among the worst of any industry. In Australia, agriculture, fishing and forestry rank among the worst industries for equal pay for women.
To honour this year’s International Women’s Day and all the women working towards a more just and equitable food system, I’m posting an excerpt from my piece The bitter taste of patriarchy, shortlisted for the New Philosopher Writers’ Award XVI: Food
Throughout many ancient texts, there is a continual identification of women with the earth. This identification has two dimensions; the earth is often described as being like a mother and categorised as feminine (Mother Earth, Gaia), and mothers are linked to Earth’s life-giving processes (fertility, nourishment, the harvest).
This archetype is situated in its most primitive form in mythology, works of art, and in religious and philosophical literature. In the Rig Veda, a collection of ancient Hindu Sanskrit hymns, medicinal plants are referred to as Mothers, for their ability to heal and sustain life. According to the biblical creation story in Genesis, Eve (a name derived from the root meaning “to live”), not only represents the essential life-giving maternal function of all women but is also the first of the sexes to handle food. As exemplified by these ancient texts, women, the Earth, and its life-giving capacity embodied by food are historically, culturally and materially linked.
Dating back many millennia and up until today, the food chain has been, and remains, gendered. Women’s central role in both providing nutrition (for families, communities and indeed nations) and across all sectors of the food chain (including production, processing, distribution, retail, food service and cooking) has and continues to be largely undermined by the interworking of power, patriarchy and capitalism.
Historically, women’s work, food-related or otherwise, has been devalued due to systems that view their labour as less valuable than that of men.
It was Esther Boserup’s seminal work, Women’s Role in Economic Development, that first drew attention in the 1970s to the invisibility of women’s agricultural work and its position outside of formal economic structures. Women were relegated to the subsistence sector of food production; the growing, harvesting, storing and preparing of food for the household or for local, informal markets. All that this entailed – countless hours of collecting water, gathering wild food and pounding grain, coupled with the complex knowledge of the diversity, characteristics and uses of many plants – remained invisible to the technocratic lens of the economist, the statistician, or the development researcher because it wasn’t deemed part of the ‘formal economy’.
Beyond subsistence economies, a feminist analysis of the capitalist food system unveils its inherent sexism and gender-bias. Despite the fact that women participate in the production and processing of food at roughly equal rates to men, women are underrepresented in higher paying jobs and leadership roles within the food industry and food policy. Of the top 100 food and beverage companies in the United States and Canada, only five women hold Chief Executive Officer positions.
Women’s earnings are lower than those of men in all sectors, but the agricultural wage gap is among the worst of any industry. Among U.S. farm workers, (predominantly immigrant) women are more vulnerable to exploitation than men, and are paid lower wages and given fewer benefits than their male family members. Recent research in the U.S. by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative demonstrates a significant gender and racial wage gap. For every dollar earned by white men working in the food chain in the U.S., white women earn less than half, at 47 cents to every dollar. Women of color face double discrimination: Black women earn 42 cents, Latina women 45 cents, Asian women 58 cents, and Native American women 36 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
Despite these seemingly intractable inequalities, women – and men – around the world are taking action to create change. They are entrepreneurs, biodiversity stewards, activists, researchers, farmers, food workers, chefs and innovators – the backbone of the world’s food systems. From global peasant movements, to independent research institutions working for systemic change, to nonprofits operating in underserved communities, a global food justice movement is growing that champions a vision of gender parity and social, environmental and economic equity.