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Specialising in


  • Community consultation and facilitation

  • Natural resource and social planning

  • Policy development




The project

Economic module


Participants in Missed Opportunities

Overview of findings about women's contribution

Barriers for women in agriculture

Improving leadership in the agricultural sector

Strategies for change

Strategies relevant across the agricultural sector

Recommendations from the Missed Opportunities report

The Next Stage - Missed Opportunities Phase 2



Elix J and Lambert J
Community Solutions in association with


The Missed Opportunities project interviewed and surveyed more than 250 people involved in the agricultural sector about the barriers for women in agriculture, and women’s involvement in leadership activities. While women contribute 48% of real farm income, less than 20% of agricultural decision-makers are women. Women in agricultural enterprises are both the “glue” that holds the family farm together, as well as being business planners and creative strategists.

Women’s skills and expertise are needed in Australia’s agricultural and pastoral sectors. Upgrading management performance will be greatly assisted by diversify management structures.

The Missed Opportunities project examined best practice examples of involving women in leadership, and proposed strategies for change across the agricultural sector.

A follow up project (Missed Opportunities Phase 2) is currently being conducted by Phoenix Projects. The Victorian Farmers’ Federation and the South Australian Farmers’ Federation are involved in this phase which seeks to implement many of the recommendations of the initial project

Capitalising on the talents of diversity involves half of our population - women - and we must also utilise the skills of our multicultural society.
The Karpin Report (1995)


Traditionally, women’s involvement in agriculture has been somewhat hidden - in terms of public perception, through representation in statistical data, and in private acknowledgment. Some attempt has been made to estimate the contribution of women on broadacre and diary farms (Gooday, 1995; Ferguson & Simpson, 1995). However, the contribution of women across all aspects of agriculture has been far more difficult to determine. As the outcomes of the International Women in Agriculture Conference (OSW 1994) highlighted “Women in agriculture are poorly represented in agricultural statistics and measures of productivity. There is more information on the production of livestock than there is on women’s contribution to agriculture.”

And our historical recognition of women’s contribution to agriculture and natural resource management has been less than adequate. In her speech to the Fourth International Women in Leadership Conference in Perth, 1995, Mary Salce noted that little more than 100 years ago, in drawing up Census categories, the government specifically excluded farmers’ wives from being counted as ‘engaged in agriculture’. Mary noted, with irony, this was just before Australian women became among the first in the world to get the vote.

Mary goes on to comment that in the 1920s, in Victoria, studies revealed that the dairy industry existed largely as a result of women’s and children’s labour, and Government officials admitted that without women working - unpaid - many dairy farms would not be viable.

Early settler Elizabeth Macarthur, who, apparently uncomplainingly, maintained the farm in husband John's absence, and contributed significantly to the development of Australia’s wool industry, is a good example of the unrecognised achiever.

Women are certainly more visible in their farming roles today, but would Elizabeth Macarthur be offered a position on the Wool Board in recognition of her contribution, or would that post be assigned, directly or by default, to her husband?

Missed Opportunities: harnessing the skills of women for economic, environmental and social development was a national research project, jointly commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industries and Energy and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. The project ran in parallel with work towards the development of a National Action Plan for Women in Agriculture and Resource Management which has subsequently been adopted (Standing Committee on Agriculture & Resource Management, 1998).

The project team for Missed Opportunities was

  • Jane Elix and Judy Lambert from Community Solutions

  • Louise Crossley from Lateral Concepts

  • Jackie Ohlin Consultant

A separate but complementary economic module was carried out by Jenny Gordon of the Centre for International Economics (CIE).

The project

The project

  • collected data on the nature and value of women’s current and potential contribution to agriculture, both directly and through participation in significant decision making forums in the sector

  • identified barriers to women’s greater participation; and

  • developed strategies for change to diversify management within the agricultural sector

The project defined the role which women play in the agricultural sector and the skills and experiences they bring to this role, and identified measures by which the potential value of their contribution to the substantial changes occurring in the industry can be maximised. The project also identified barriers to women’s greater participation in innovation, leadership and decision making, and made recommendations as to how this participation might be enhanced.

The project built on the growing body of evidence which supports the benefits to industry of enhancing diversity within the workforce - benefits which can only strengthen the agricultural sector. The place of partnerships between women in agriculture and those with whom they interact at home, in the community, in the industry, in media and in government in achieving diversity forms part of this work.

In undertaking this project, the project team limited ‘resource management’ to those aspects of natural resources and commodities which relate to agricultural, pastoral and related industries. While it is recognised that regional development is dependent upon the integration of agricultural, forestry, mining, fisheries and other resource-based industries across the rural sector, the work involved in exploring implications within the agricultural sector was in itself extensive. The timeline and budget for this project did not extend to other aspects of resource management. The focus was therefore on farm-based primary production and the sectors which support that. Accordingly, throughout this paper reference will be made to ‘agriculture’, rather than to ‘agriculture and resource management’.

Economic module

The economic model of the contribution of women on farms was developed for the Missed Opportunities project to provide an estimate of the value of contributions from both women and men on farms.

Women are not widely recognised for their contribution to agriculture, yet at the farm level they play a vital role in making farming financially sustainable. Through their farm work, only some of which is recognised as employment, their off-farm wage income, and their household work, women contribute to real farm income. Individual farms also rely on the farming community for support and women play a major role in sustaining farming communities that provide emotional as well as physical resources such as social welfare services.

A scenario approach was developed as a tool for considering the potential contribution of women in agriculture. Three scenarios were developed, based on survey responses to questions which probed views on the future of agriculture in Australia. A business as usual scenario, a diversification scenario and a land stewardship scenario were developed with the assistance of the advisory group to the project team. The scenarios explored possible futures for agriculture in Australia and developed roles for women, consistent with the changes in the agricultural production systems. Based on the survey findings that women are more willing to develop new products and adopt new production systems, and on their relatively greater involvement in the business management side of production a stronger role for women under the diversification scenario is identified. Not incidentally, this is the scenario which also offers the best outcome for Australian agriculture.

The participants in Missed Opportunities

A wide range of players in the agriculture and resource management sectors were involved.

  • 29 national agricultural leaders were interviewed face to face

  • 28 CEOs and Chairs of agricultural organisations completed a postal survey

  • 199 women and men actively involved in diverse aspects of the agricultural sector were interviewed by phone

  • Of the 256 participants, 80% were women

  • The participants were active across the agricultural sector. The largest groups were partners in a farming enterprise (24%), and those employed in a government agriculture or resource management agency (15%)

  • The majority (64%) were aged between 41 and 60

  • The majority (63%) had university or other tertiary education, the most common area of study being agriculture

  • 46 people attended focus group forums held in St George in southern-central Queensland and in Milawa in north-eastern Victoria

  • all agricultural sectors were represented, including new industries and those focusing on value adding.

Overview of findings about women’s contribution

In 1995-96, the National Accounts reported that the market value of farm output was $14.5 billion. Including the value of household work, volunteer and community work and off farm wage income earned by people on farms, real farm income was just over $28 billion. Women contribute 48% of this real farm income.

But less than 20% of agricultural decision-makers are women. This imbalance reduces the diversity in leadership needed to improve performance, both domestically and in a competitive global market.

  • The vast proportion of agricultural businesses are family-owned and operated. 32% of Australia’s farm work force is female. More than 70,000 women identify themselves as farmers or farm managers. In economic terms, women's contribution amounts to at least 28% of the market value of farm output or a gross figure of $4 billion annually.

  • Women's main areas of contribution to on-farm output are in the areas of livestock care, value adding, farm tourism and business management - and in general, women see themselves as being responsible for introducing innovation to the farming operation. Women see their strengths to be in the areas of financial and business management, and in using their "people" and negotiation skills.

  • Women contribute to the overall viability of farming enterprises through off-farm work to a total of about $1.1 billion per year. In recent years, it is off-farm work (81% of which is carried out by women) which has enabled many farming families to maintain their enterprises and lifestyle.

  • Women in agricultural enterprises are both the "glue" that holds the family farm together - by taking a major responsibility for family maintenance and hands-on farming - as well as being business planners and creative strategists.

  • Women in agriculture also make essential voluntary contributions to their rural communities. It is estimated that this amounts to at least $0.5 billion a year.

In addition, women on farms contribute about $8 billion a year to the rural economy through unpaid household work.

The barriers for women in agriculture

The project found that the greatest barriers to women's expanded leadership in the agricultural sector are

  • Organisational culture - attitudes, communication channels

  • Family unfriendly workplaces - lack of flexibility

  • Self-perceptions among women that their skills and abilities are not adequate for the task

Other barriers include

  • Absence of role models and mentoring

  • Lack of recognised experience - due to failure of organisations to apply ‘merit’ principles, while valuing a narrow set of traits to represent 'experience'

  • Lack of access to training

Legal recognition of women’s role on farms was also an issue of concern. One forum participant commented that “My name is not on the title, even though I have sweated for 20 years on the property, so although we have very active discussions, [my husband] has the final say!”

Women who had been involved in grower/producer organisations expressed frustration at the relegation of women’s knowledge and skills to “Social Issues Committees”. There was also concern that the “tall poppy” syndrome led to personal attacks on women who had begun to take on leadership roles within such organisations.

For women on farms the major barriers were time, - "Women have gained the right to work longer hours!" said one participant - other commitments including outside work and family and age/physical ability.

For women working in the agricultural R&D area, major barriers were the stereotyping of women, male attitudes and other commitments including family.

For women in agricultural organisations, stereotyping, male attitudes, lack of self-confidence and other commitments including family were the major barriers.

Improving leadership in the agricultural sector

In recent times, the global workplace has focused on the importance of entrepreneurial skills and the ability to look to the future, and is recognising the benefits of diversity in management.

The 1995 Karpin Report found that Australian industry generally has an urgent need to upgrade its management performance and identified diversity in management as one of five key areas in which improvement is urgently needed.

At a time when Australia’s agricultural and pastoral sectors are experiencing great difficulty competing in the global market, it is therefore vitally that this sector becomes a leader in building diversity in management, as part of the process of revitalising the sector and its international competitiveness.

The project participants said that responsiveness to change, leadership and improved communication and networking are the factors which will lead to increased productivity in the agricultural sector.

They saw that good leaders are those who can communicate effectively, involve all stakeholders, help the development of a shared vision and think laterally. At the time of the Missed Opportunities project consultations participants believed that agricultural leadership displays parochial or entrenched attitudes, limited vision, short term thinking at the expense of long term planning and an entrenched "Old Boys Network".

While some changes have occurred in the sector since the Missed Opportunities project was completed, it is not clear to what extent those changes reflect the project outcomes.

Strategies for change

In developing `best practice' approaches to greater involvement of women in leadership and management across the agricultural sector, it is important that we build on our knowledge to date and on the positives already existing within the sector and elsewhere.

It may be that new and highly innovative strategies are not yet recognised, and take time to emerge as the corporate sector generally moves from what is known by some (see, for instance Maynard & Mehrtens 1997) as the second wave, through a third wave, directly to a new 'fourth wave' approach. The 'fourth wave' is about creating value, rather than maximising profits, recognising people as a valuable resource, valuing teamwork in an inclusive management style and seeing economics and ecology as inter-connected. As reflected in many of the papers presented at the Bureau of Rural Sciences 'Country Matters' conference held in Canberra in May 1999, the agricultural sector in Australia is well placed to lead the way in moving to this `fourth wave', but to do so will almost certainly require a greater diversity in management than at present.

However, there are some strategies which clearly emerge, even within the current management culture. As greater emphasis is placed on stewardship, with a concurrent de-emphasis on resource use and exploitation for production, agricultural producers are increasingly be called upon to adopt a ‘duty of care’ towards the land they own or manage (Industry Commission, 1998). In doing so, the introduction of newer technologies, new products and enterprises will all have a role to pay in maintaining and increasing productivity in ways which do not impact adversely on the land. Care for the land is increasingly becoming an integral part of the production system, rather than a somewhat luxurious add-on, done when economic circumstances permit.

Modern schools of management place increased emphasis on the satisfaction of intrinsic motivators within the workplace, for example, satisfaction of the needs for a feeling of competence, accomplishment, responsibility and personal growth (see, for instance Vecchio et al, 1996). This contrasts with the traditional, male-dominated workplace management approach which relies more heavily on the satisfaction of extrinsic motivators such as pay and other financial rewards. This project has demonstrated the importance of intrinsic motivators for its female participants, and a large number of the male participants. If women are to be more involved in leadership within the agricultural sector, strategies for satisfying intrinsic motivators will need to be put in place.

Furthermore, with changes in the role of men and women as rural producers, there is a growing realisation that women are both key players in rural production and at the same time customers of rural services. With that realisation comes an awareness that women as well as men should be involved in planning and providing those services.

Strategies relevant across the agricultural sector

If diversity in management, and the benefits that come with it, are to be achieved, three common issues, recurring across different components of the agricultural sector need to be addressed by all who are involved. These are

  • the culture within the sector, which is seen to be male-oriented and unwelcoming to women as leaders and managers

  • the competing demands of work within the sector and family responsibilities, the overwhelming burden of which still falls to women, and

  • the extent to which women’s self-perceptions or lack of confidence inhibit their progress to positions as leaders and managers within the sector.

Recommendations from the Missed Opportunities Report

For grower and producer organisations

At the local or branch level

  • Change membership and voting rights to move away from one vote for a farm partnership towards individual membership or two votes for a farm partnership.

  • Take advantage of opportunities for greater use of home-based meetings, computers and teleconferencing, rather than always expecting participants to travel to central locations.

At the state or national level

  • Consider appointment of representatives by merit rather than election and ensure that merit appointment processes are structured to gain a diversity of skills

  • Set targets for diversity in management

  • Arrange affiliations with women's groups within agriculture (eg Australian Women in Agriculture)

  • Develop and support women's networks within the various producer sectors

  • Active support from existing Chairs and CEOs is essential

For government agricultural agencies

Agencies should develop specialist units which will resource moves towards diversity by

  • building wider and more inclusive consultation processes [which move beyond minimal contact with leaders of ‘representative’ organisations]

  • providing sponsorship (both financial and guidance) to women who might serve as role models (taking over the role that has been played by the ABC's Rural Woman of the Year program)

  • providing education and training for senior managers in valuing and implementing diversity in management

  • ensuring strong and public commitment from CEOs and senior managers

  • reviewing legislation and policies determining the composition of government Boards and Advisory Committees to ensure that selection criteria are skills based

  • recruiting women in rural and remote areas to gain experience in management and seconding urban women to management positions in rural and remote areas

  • establishing specific regionally based research projects designed to explore the influence of different consultative processes

For agricultural research and development organisations

Government, scientific and academic institutions should

  • Ensure that R&D Corporations develop industry-specific women's committees, to set R&D priorities and funding allocations, for an agreed proportion of the Corporation funds

  • Establish a Women's Advisory Group to the R&D Corporation Chairs and Directors

  • Maintain and increase R&D Corporation support for post-graduate training and student development, given that approximately half of all graduates in the agricultural sciences are now women

  • Develop a highly regarded and coveted part-time Research Associate scheme (and other similar schemes) to keep talented senior research staff who want to spend time with growing families, within the career advancement structure

  • Review selection processes for R&D Corporation Boards and senior R&D management positions, to ensure selection on merit and a broader definition and assessment of that merit. Membership of Boards should reflect the full profile of interested parties, from producer through processor to consumer.

For agribusiness

Commitment at the highest level is the most important aspect of increasing diversity in agribusiness, as in other organisations seeking to make this change.

Within agribusiness

  • CEOs should be encouraged to participate in events at which respected speakers promote the benefits of diversity in management

  • The organisation must be convinced to invest significant time and resources in achieving change, secure in the knowledge that, properly implemented, such change will benefit returns on investment

  • People, both within the organisation and from outside, who already acknowledge the benefits of this change, should be identified and recruited as champions of the change

  • Corporate graduate programs should be negotiated with tertiary education institutions to meet the specific needs of organisations seeking change in management

  • Cadetship programs should be established and promoted to recruit management trainees who can then be given responsibility in key areas of the organisation after graduation

The next stage - Missed Opportunities Phase 2

The full “Missed Opportunities” project report provides more detailed strategies for bringing about change in the agricultural sector. Included among these is the proposal that a small number of organisations within the agricultural sector be chosen to participate in a pilot program to increase diversity in leadership during 1998.

Phase 2 of the Missed Opportunities project commenced early in 1999. Approximately 70 organisations were invited to nominate to participate in Phase 2. From these, three applications were received and one of those waseliminated because it was a women's organisation, rather than an agriculture organisation seeking to increase diversity in leadership and management.

The Victorian Farmers’ Federation (VFF) and the South Australian Farmers’ Federation (SAFF) were chosen to be the participants in the pilot program, which is being conducted by Melbourne based consultants, Phoenix Projects. When Phoenix Projects came in as the 'Phase 2 facilitators' VFF were already very keen and well advanced with their plans for increasing diversity in the organisation. They had in place a 3-stage approach, with the first stage (the acceptance of a “Diversity Policy”) already completed prior to the commencement of Missed Opportunities Phase 2. The SAFF were at a less advanced stage in the development of their diversity strategies.

Of great relevance to both organisations were the issues surrounding membership and how it is registered and included in databases. Although there were some difficulties in changing the structure of the database, and with these came financial implications men and women are now both registered on the membership databases of both organisations.

Working with the consultants, VFF has held 7 regional forums (open to women and men in each region), the running of which included a significant financial commitment, personal involvement of the VFF President (including signed personal invitations - a factor reported at forums to have been significant for several women in determining whether it was worthwhile to be involved), and a focus on “making the organisation more accessible” and seeking advice from women as to what would be required to do that for them.

Out of the VFF forums women have taken over the running of several relatively inactive VFF Branches, and all Branches have received a letter from the President noting that organisational policy requires that Branches hold meetings at times that are good for the majority of participants (a factor identified as significant both in the Phase 1 project and for women who participated in the forums). The VFF pilot study has recently been completed and the organisation is moving on to Phase 3 of its planned program - revitalising the organisation, and increasing participation by the full diversity of membership.

The SAFF acknowledges that it is less advanced than is VFF. An initial forum, early in their pilot project, was open to all comers, but without dedicated targeting of local key people it was less productive than were the forums in Victoria. However, a recent forum at Naracoorte was much more positive. This is now being used as a regional model, with the women there providing links directly into SAFF, and becoming involved in revitalising inactive branches of SAFF.

Phoenix Projects report that one of the key points arising from the recent SA forum was that the participants want to see the SAFF move away from being a 'commodity based organisation' to one which addresses social issues and their importance in rural communities.


Changes directed to diversifying leadership and management across the agricultural and pastoral sectors are occurring, but they may not be occurring quickly enough for a sector which has economic, social and environmental problems. In moving to increase diversity in leadership and management across the agricultural sector, and in so doing, to increase the role of women, Missed Opportunities Phases 1 and 2 have sought to find ways of building a changed culture. Such a changed culture will be one which is not only good for women, but also good for the sector and its longer term sustainability, profitability and international competitiveness. Agriculture in Australia is a sector in urgent need of change and it is a sector with greater opportunity for change than many others.

At the conclusion of Phase 2 of the Missed Opportunities, both the VFF and SAFF will provide models for others seeking to make these changes. This will be complemented by other initiatives, such as the Year 2000 Rural Woman of the Year awards, which will provide bursaries enabling women with a "strong and positive vision for the future of agriculture" to undertake projects implementing their innovative ideas and in so doing, to overcome financial and other barriers often placed in their way in the past. And, is recognised within the conditions of the Award, natural resource management is one essential element of the revitalisation process, and an element in which women increasingly play an important role.

To ignore the skills which almost 50% of the participants in the industry can bring to managing for that change makes neither social nor economic sense. The sector must seize the challenge and quickly come to regard all who work within it as an investment. As we move into the 21st century, human skills will attain increasing importance as an asset. Almost 50% of those people in agriculture are women, and an even greater proportion of the customers of agricultural production are women. Opportunities exist for all parts of the sector to begin the shift towards greater involvement of women in leadership and management.


Bureau of Rural Sciences (1999). Country Matters. Proceedings of a national conference on the role of the social sciences in developing policy and programs for Australia's rural industries. National Convention Centre, Canberra, 20-21 May 1999.

Ferguson J. & Simpson R. (1995). The Australian Rural Labour Market: National Farmers' Federation research paper. Barton, ACT.

Gooday J. (1995) Women on Farms: A survey of women on Australian broadacre and dairy farms, 1993-94. ABARE Research Project 95.10, Canberra.

Industry Commission (1998). A Full Repairing Lease. Report on Inquiry into Ecologically Sustainable Land Management. Industry Commission report No. 60, Canberra.

Karpin D.S. (1995). Enterprising Nation: Renewing Australia’s Managers to Meet the Challenge of the Asia-Pacific Century. Report of the Industry Taskforce on Leadership and Management Skills. Aust. Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Maynard H.B. & Mehrtens S.E. (1997). The fourth wave: Business in the 21st Century. Berrett-Kohler Publishers, San Francisco.

Office of the Status of Women (1994). Farming for our Future International Women in Agriculture conference: Recommendations and Outcomes, July 1994. OSW, Canberra.

Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation & Department of Primary Industries & Energy (1998). Missed Opportunities: Harnessing the Potential of Women in Australian Agriculture. Consultancy Report Volume 1, eds. Elix J., Lambert J., Crossley L. & Ohlin J.

Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation & Department of Primary Industries & Energy (1998). Missed Opportunities: Harnessing the Potential of Women in Australian Agriculture. Consultancy Report Volume 2, eds. Gordon J. et al., Centre for International Economics, Canberra.

Salce M. (1995). Breaking through the grass ceiling. Address to 'Dancing on the Glass Ceiling - New Century, New Workplace, New Leaders', Fourth International Women in Leadership Conference. Edith Cowan University, Perth.

Standing Committee on Agriculture & Resource Management (1998). A Vision for Change. National Action Plan for Women in Agriculture and Resource Management, Canberra.

Vecchio R.P., Hearn G. & Southey G. (1996). Organisational Behaviour. 2nd edn. Harcourt Brace, Marrickville.


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