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Women. The most wasted resource in food production

By Jess Halliday

08-Mar-2011

Forget pancakes. I'm flippin' well going for the CEO's job
Forget pancakes. I'm flippin' well going for the CEO's job

Today is Pancake Day. It is also International Women’s Day. An important date, then, not just for food lovers in countries where Mardi Gras is a big deal, but a day to consider the role – and the potential – of women involved in food provision all over the world.

One of the most pressing priorities of our times is making the best use of resources to produce sufficient, safe and appropriate food for a growing world population. But this applies not just to tangible resources like land, water and energy.

There’s an enormous need to make optimum use of human resources too, that means making the best use of every single individual in the workforce throughout the food chain – women and men, on farms, in factories and processing plants, and in shops and service outlets.

Failing to foster talent and provide training and opportunities on the basis of gender means, quite simply, squandering one of the most valuable resources known to (wo)man.

Down with inequality on the farm

The FAO’s latest report on The State of Food and Agriculture found that women farmers are between 20 and 30 per cent less productive than their male counterparts.

Make no mistake, this is not because they are less able, but it's due to the sad and unfair fact that they have far less access to inputs, land, education, technology and markets.

Now we’re not talking about some tiny minority here. On average 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries are women. That’s the very labour force growing crops that, eventually, end up on plates around the globe.

What a waste of women’s potential!

And a waste of the lives of 100-150 million people, out of the estimated 950 million suffering from malnutrition and hunger today, who could be well-fed, active members of society thanks to that extra food production.

Gender up the supply chain

Tackling gender issues required a multi-stakeholder approach, involving international agencies, governments, civil society groups – and let’s not forget women themselves. We can be a force to be reckoned with, have no fear.

But the food industry also has a crucial role to play in dealing with the issues – within their own operations and by sourcing from suppliers who, in turn, treat their employees with fairness and respect.

And so on, up the chain to those women agricultural labourers.

Women, because they are often the main provider of childcare, tend to be seen as more flexible employees. That means more casual work without benefits or job security, and such work may be menial in nature and based on the misconception that women are, by dint of having smaller hands, better suited to delicate tasks than men.

In developed countries, too, there are big gender issues in food production.

According to Improve, the Food and Drink Skills Council, 67 per cent of the UK food and drink manufacturing workforce is male. With the imbalance predicted to become even more pronounced in the future, Improve is on a mission to help women kick start their careers through its Women and Work Sector Pathways Initiative.

Interestingly, of the 33 per cent of women employed in UK food manufacturing, a higher than average share work in confectionery and baking, sub-sectors said to be more suited to part time working.

As for fair pay between the gender, no data was available today but Improve is conducting research for a future report on the industry.

There is still some way to go before gender issues are fully addressed by major food industry players – and it will take more than one day a year to do this. It will also take a major re-think in many cultures – not least the corporate culture.

Today, and for the whole year, gender equality must be a top-line strategic issue.

Yes, far more important than whether we can toss our pancakes without dropping them on onto the floor.

Jess Halliday is senior editor of FoodNavigator.com. She has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States for 12 years and recently gained a MSc in Food Policy with distinction at City University London. Jess lives in a small village famous for figs in southern France.

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