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Monday 25 September 2017

Opinion: How women can break through the 'grass' ceiling

Suzanna Crampton in the kitchen of her home in Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny, with her lamb Teeny Tiny, which she is keeping warm in the oven, watched by her dogs, Big Fella and Pepper. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Suzanna Crampton in the kitchen of her home in Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny, with her lamb Teeny Tiny, which she is keeping warm in the oven, watched by her dogs, Big Fella and Pepper. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

It struck me last week that women farmers see themselves differently when they farm with men, compared to those who farm on their own, whether because they are single, widowed, separated, etc.

When a couple is involved, the tasks are obviously shared. As men tend to be physically stronger, it makes sense that he would strip the silage while she feeds the calves.

Women who farm alone do it all. You could say that this is because they have no other choice. But it is also because they are able.

I'm not suggesting that men disempower women but there is a lot going on here.

One is tradition. Possibly because farming is essentially a primeval activity, male farmers may feel they have to be the provider. So, rightly or not, some women, perhaps subconsciously, feel their man's need for validation is greater than theirs; and when they say "I only …" it is to avoid diminishing him.

This is not to ignore that some farm women are subjugated. But many are quite capable of managing situations to their advantage.

When a travelling salesman would ask my widowed mother if he could speak to the boss, she would say "I'm the boss" if she wanted to talk to him or "he's gone out" if she didn't.

The above realisation dawned as I listened to some of the women attending last week's meeting of SEWFI (South East Women in Farming Ireland).

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I have encountered various initiatives aimed at improving the status of women in agriculture. But, for whatever reasons, it hasn't improved much in over 20 years.

Thinking about the meeting, I was fearful I could be walking into a room full of man-haters.

But the meeting was a revelation.

It was chaired by one of the group's founders, American-born, Kilkenny-based sheep farmer Suzanna Crampton who struck a positive diplomatic tone, even saying at one point, "we love men".

Explaining that this is not a lobby group, she pointed out the glass - or perhaps "grass" - ceiling is very real but said their objective is personal empowerment by supporting each other and sharing knowledge and expertise. This is a most worthwhile objective, regardless of sex.

While this meeting was on, RTE's Ear To The Ground was running an item about the role of women in farming (well done Helen Harris), including in the farming organisations - as highlighted by this newspaper last week.

It's easy to say that women are massively under-represented in the IFA but does this not also show that women may be the indispensable ones in farm families?

No woman wants to spend hours listening to auld lads ranting on. If we had to rush out to a protest at short notice, who is going to keep the show on the road at home?

I see little chance of women's participation in farm bodies increasing significantly unless/until they find a more efficient way to conduct their business. But I also have no doubt they would benefit greatly if they did.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here but, the more empowered women become, the better they will be at influencing the shape of these organisations and how they conduct their business.

Among the good points made by the panel, which included a number of agricultural journalists, is that farm women need encouragement and, as a starting point, need to get the men in their lives to acknowledge their contribution. But they also need to push themselves.

Well done and good luck to all concerned.

Indo Farming





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