Women have always had significant roles in farming. Their labor contribution has been essential to human survival ever since domestication and settlement fundamentally changed the way we produce food. However, the persistent division of labor across gender lines follows the pattern of other economic sectors that widen the gender inequality gap: across the world, the smaller the farm and the more rudimentary its production methods, the higher the percentage of women’s involvement. Conversely, as agriculture evolved into the global, industrialized agribusiness we see today, fewer women work in what has since emerged as a mostly male-dominated field.
Of course, this pattern should surprise no one. At the top of nearly any fully industrialized economic field, men hold major positions of power and control. In industrial agriculture, most means of productions and the lands these take up are in the hands of corporations run by men. Men are the decision makers for global agricultural policies, control the global distribution of agricultural products, and perpetuate the idea of getting into the farming business as being a masculine career choice.
In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, Sonia Faruqi notes that even today, women senior executives in the agriculture business world are a rarity. She writes
“Cal-Maine Foods, the largest egg producer in the U.S., counts just one woman on its 20-member leadership team. Tyson Foods, the largest chicken producer in the U.S., with chicken factories located also in Mexico, Brazil, China, and India, has one woman on its 12-member executive team. Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the U.S., with pig factory farms located also in Mexico, Poland, and Romania, has two women on its 19-member executive team. Maple Leaf Foods, one of Canada’s largest agribusiness companies, has three on its 22-member management team. At these four multi-billion-dollar factory farm corporations, women cumulatively constitute less than 10 percent of senior executives. Women have been unable to crack through the ‘grass ceiling,’ as some in the industry call it.”
So why and how might cellular agriculture change this pattern?
First, the ethical values within cellular agriculture production are already aligned with what many women care about: compassion, environmental responsibility, and global health. Second, as more girls enter STEM programs, they will hopefully tip the gender balance of qualified and employable people in food science and engineering fields. Third, as physical labor in the field or in the factory farm is gradually replaced by mental labor in the research lab or technical labor in bioreactor facilities, the cloak of farming being “men’s work” will drop. Fourth, if animal-based food production can be decoupled from massive land use and male land ownership alone, the key necessity for growing anything becomes obsolete. Lastly, the very meaning of “farming” as a descriptor of raising animals will need to change if “growing” chickens now means that someone will need to get up early in the morning to feed chicken cells, not birds crammed wing-to-wing in a huge warehouse.
Cellular agriculture companies and organizations have already opened the doors for women by creating a welcoming environment that encourages collaboration and transparency. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “innovation” and “creativity” are gender neutral attributes that trump hierarchical business structures, the search for top talent to move the field forward appears, at least for now, to be quite gender-inclusive. Even within major organizations such as the GFI, a significant number of women occupy key positions. However, there does seem to be a gender imbalance when comparing top positions on the business side of cellular agriculture: the majority of founders and CEOs of start-ups tend to be male. Perhaps this is just a feature of start-ups in general. Yet, many women are drawn to the field because it does not have enough history to be considered male dominated. And there is plenty of room at the top to share and keep it that way. Two great articles that speak in more detail to this particular issue can be found here:
For young women contemplating careers in food science and technology, cellular agriculture could enable a space for feminist values to emerge within historically male fields of biotechnology. Sharing and exchanging ideas to benefit the field as a whole is a core value of the cellular agriculture community even among start-ups who fiercely guard their intellectual property in the race to the market. Non-exploitative animal and environmental attitudes already motivate a vast majority of people in the field so including non-exploitative gender attitudes shouldn’t be too far of a stretch.
And while the ubiquitous “glass ceiling” persists in many other industries, where it does break is also where innovation and disruption are happening. It seems that innovative companies realize that gender inequality in terms of hiring and advancement is not only costly in terms of inviting scrutiny from professional women everywhere, but it is costly to innovation itself.
And after all, breaking the “grass ceiling” for women in cellular agriculture will no longer be necessary when the key features of farming no longer define it: where there’s no grass, there’s no “grass ceiling.”