Men and women in agriculture: closing the gap


Men and women in agriculture

Are women farmers just as efficient as men?

Many studies have attempted to assess whether female farmers are as productive as male farmers, and have shown that women typically achieve lower yields than men do. But this is not because women are worse farmers than men. The most thorough studies also attempt to assess whether these differences are caused by difference in input use, such as improved seeds, fertilizers and tools, or other factors such as access to extension services and education. And the vast majority of this literature confirms that women are just as efficient as men. They simply do not have access to the same inputs, productive resources and services. Some studies compare labour productivity rather than yields, but the results are consistent with the finding that yield differences are caused by differences in input use.

Are women involved in agriculture and farming?

On average, women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries; this figure ranges from around 20 percent in Latin America to 50 percent in parts of Africa and Asia, and exceeds 60 percent in a few countries.1 In most developing country regions, women who are employed are just as likely, or even more likely, than men to be in agriculture. Almost 70 percent of employed women in Southern Asia and more than 60 percent of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture.

Women work in agriculture as farmers on their own account, as unpaid workers on family farms and as paid or unpaid labourers on other farms and agricultural enterprises. They are involved in both crop and livestock production at subsistence and commercial levels. They produce food and cash crops and manage mixed agricultural operations often involving crops, livestock and fish farming.

Some researchers note that agricultural labour-force statistics may actually underestimate the amount of work that women do: women are less likely than men to define their activities as work, they are less likely to report themselves as being engaged in agriculture and they work, on average, longer hours than men. So even if fewer women are involved they may contribute more total time to the sector.

Are women involved in livestock?

Women are heavily engaged in this sector: an estimated two thirds of poor livestock keepers, totalling approximately 400 million people, are women.2 They share responsibility with men and children for the care of animals, and particular species and types of activity are more associated with women than men. For example, women often have a prominent role in managing poultry3 and dairy animals4 and in caring for other animals that are housed and fed within the homestead. The influence of women is strong in the use of eggs, milk and poultry meat for home consumption and they often have control over marketing these products and the income derived from them. In some countries, small-scale pig production is also dominated by women. 

Female-headed households are as successful as male-headed households in generating income from their animals, although they tend to own smaller numbers of animals, probably because of labour constraints.

Do women work in fisheries and aquaculture?

While comprehensive data are not available on a sex-disaggregated basis, case studies suggest that women may comprise up to 30 percent of the total employment in fisheries, including primary and secondary activities. Information provided to FAO from 86 countries indicates that in 2008, 5.4 million women worked as fishers and fish farmers in the primary sector. This represents 12 percent of the total. In two major producing countries, China and India, women represented a share of 21 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of all fishers and fish farmers. 

In aquaculture as well, though macro-level sex-disaggregated data is almost non-existent, studies indicate that the contribution of women in labour is often greater than men’s, especially in Asia where aquaculture has a long tradition: women are reported to constitute 33 percent of the rural aquaculture workforce in China, 42 percent in Indonesia and 80 percent in Viet Nam.5

Women have rarely engaged in commercial offshore and long-distance capture fisheries because of the vigorous work involved but also because of their domestic responsibilities and/or social norms. Instead, they are more commonly occupied in subsistence and commercial fishing from small boats and canoes in coastal or inland waters. They also contribute as entrepreneurs and provide labour before, during and after the catch. 

The most significant role played by women in both artisanal and industrial fisheries is at the processing and marketing stages, where they are very active in all regions. In fact, most fish processing is performed by women, either in their own household-level industries or as wage labourers in the large-scale processing industry. In some countries, women have become significant entrepreneurs in fish processing. For example, in West Africa, the so called “Fish Mamas” play a major role: they usually own capital and are directly and vigorously involved in the coordination of the fisheries chain, from production to the sale of fish.

Poverty and undernourishment among women

Do women and girls make up the majority of the world’s poor?

Poverty is normally measured in terms of income or consumption at the household level, not for individuals, so separate poverty rates for men and women cannot be calculated. However, females may be poorer than males if broader measures of poverty are considered, such as access to productive resources and inputs: compared with their male counterparts, female farmers in all regions control less land and livestock, make far less use of improved seed varieties and purchased inputs such as fertilizers, are much less likely to use credit or insurance, have lower education levels and are less likely to have access to extension services.

Are female-headed households poorer than male-headed households?

Data from 35 nationally representative surveys for 20 countries analysed by FAO show that female-headed households are more likely to be poor than male-headed households in some countries, but the opposite is true in other countries – so it is not possible to generalize.

Data limitations also make it impossible to distinguish systematically between households headed by women who are single, widowed or divorced (de jure female heads) and those who are associated with an adult male who supports the family through remittances and social networks (de facto female heads). It is likely that the former are more likely to be poor than the latter.6

There is also evidence to suggest that rural female-headed households were more vulnerable than males during the food price shock of 2008 because they spend a larger proportion of household income on food and because they were less able to respond by increasing food production.7 But again, these results vary by country.  

Are women and girls more likely to be undernourished than men and boys?

Such an assumption is not supported by available evidence, and generalizations are difficult to make. The limited evidence available suggests that this may be true in Asia, while it is not true in Africa. And while women are disadvantaged with regard to hunger and nutrition in many locations, this is not always the case. More sex-disaggregated data of better quality on anthropometric and other indicators of malnutrition are needed to arrive at clear conclusions.

There is, however, evidence that girls are much more vulnerable to transitory income shocks than boys,8 and certain health and nutritional issues are sex-specific. For example, women’s energy and nutritional needs increase during menstruation, pregnancy and lactation and their nutritional status has an impact on their offspring. There is also evidence that women have higher morbidity than men – not only because they live longer – and that they are less likely to access health services.9

Thus, gender differences in nutrition and health could have important policy implications for society. Policy interventions that address the specific health and nutrition issues of women are important, but their nature and scope should always reflect the specific context and location.


What’s the difference between sex and gender?

The concepts of “sex” and “gender” can be confusing, not least because even the experts sometimes use them inconsistently. Sex refers to the innate biological categories of male or female. Gender refers to the social roles and identities associated with what it means to be a man or a woman.

Gender roles are shaped by ideological, religious, ethnic, economic and cultural factors and are a key determinant of the distribution of responsibilities and resources between men and women.10 Every society is marked by gender differences, but these vary widely by culture and can change dramatically over time.

Sex is biology. Gender is sociology.

Can gender roles change?

Unlike sex, which is fixed, gender roles can change. Already, women’s roles vary considerably among and within regions and are changing rapidly in many parts of the world where economic and social forces are transforming the agriculture sector. For example, the growth of modern supply chains for high-value agricultural products is creating significant opportunities – and challenges – for women in on-farm and off farm employment.

The distribution of responsibilities and resources between men and women are socially determined, and – along with many of the constraints faced by women – can be changed through conscious social action, including appropriate policies for gender equality and well designed development projects to help close the gender gap.


  1. FAO. 2010a. Roles of women in agriculture. Prepared by the SOFA team and Cheryl Doss. Rome.
  2. P.K. Thornton, R.L. Kruska, N. Henninger, P.M. Kristjanson, R.S. Reid, F. Atieno, A.N. Odero & T. Ndegwa. 2002. Mapping poverty and livestock in the developing world. Nairobi, ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute).
  3. FAO. 1998. Village chicken production systems in rural Africa: household food security and gender issues, by A.J. Kitalyi. Rome; E.F. Guèye. 2000. The role of family poultry in poverty alleviation, food security and the promotion of gender equality in rural Africa. Outlook on Agriculture, 29(2): 129–136; D.X. Tung. 2005. Smallholder poultry production in Vietnam: marketing characteristics and strategies. Paper presented at the workshop “Does Poultry Reduce Poverty? A Need for Rethinking the Approaches”, 30–31 August, Copenhagen, Network for Smallholder Poultry Development.
  4. C. Okali. & J. Mims. 1998. Gender and smallholder dairy production in Tanzania. Report to the Livestock Production Programme of the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), Appendixes 1 and 2, pp. 37–38; F.K. Tangka, M.A. Jabbar & B.I. Shapiro. 2000. Gender roles and child nutrition in livestock production systems in developing countries: a critical review. Socio-economics and Policy Research Working Paper No. 27. Nairobi, ILRI
  5. K. Kusabe & G. Kelker, eds. 2001. Gender concerns in aquaculture in Southeast Asia. Gender Studies Monograph No. 12. Bangkok, Asian Institute of Technology, School of Environment Resources and Development.
  6. G. Anríquez. 2010. Demystifying the agricultural feminization myth and the gender burden. Background paper prepared for The State of Food and Agriculture 2010–11. Rome, FAO.
  7. A. Zezza, B. Davis, C Azzarri, K.Covarrubias, L. Tasciotti & G. Anríquez. 2008. The impact of rising food prices on the poor. Agricultural Development Economics Division Working Paper No. 08-07, Rome, FAO.
  8. S. Baird, J. Friedman & N. Schady. 2007. Aggregate income shocks and infant mortality in the developing world. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4346. Washington, DC, World Bank.
  9. M. Buvinic, A. Médici, E. Fernández & A.C. Torres. 2006. Gender differentials in health. In D.T. Jamison, J.G. Breman, A.R. Measham, G. Alleyne, M. Claeson, D.B. Evans, P. Jha, A. Mills & P. Musgrove, eds. Disease control priorities in developing countries. New York, USA, Oxford University Press.
  10. C. Moser. 1989. Gender planning in the Third World: meeting practical and strategic gender needs. World Development, 17(11): 1799–1825.
SOFA 2010-2011


FAO Gender Programme
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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