Men and women in agriculture: closing the gap

Decent rural employment and farm labour

For most women in developing countries labour is their key asset, and agriculture is a particularly important source of self- and wage-employment for those who lack training or resources for employment in other sectors. But women generally face many gender-specific constraints as agricultural labourers and in hiring labour, as a result, they tend to cultivate smaller plots and achieve lower yields.

Women are often time constrained by unpaid household duties such as caregiving and collecting firewood and water,1 and by lower levels of human capital – education, health and nutrition – all of which can affect their labour productivity in agriculture and other sectors.2 In addition, female-headed households have less labour available for farm work than male-headed households because they typically have fewer working-age adult members but more dependants.

Household and community responsibilities and gender-specific labour requirements also mean that women farmers cannot farm as productively as men. Depending on cultural norms, some farming activities, such as ploughing and spraying, rely on access to male labour without which women farmers face delays that may lead to losses in output.

Policy recommendations

Decent rural employment is key to reducing poverty and achieving food security. Unleashing rural women’s socio-economic potential involves tackling a number of decent work deficits including: low productivity and low income jobs, lack of social protection, lack of basic work rights, and insufficient voice and representation. Promoting equitable and productive employment for women in agriculture and rural areas therefore should focus on -  generating better jobs for both women and men; extending the coverage of social protection to all categories of rural workers;  closing the gap in labour standards for rural workers, by paying particular attention to awareness of rights among governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations as well as individual women and men workers, and  eliminating gender bias and promoting rural institutions that equally represent women’s and men’s interests.

Target women’s multiple trade-offs in the allocation of their time

In most rural areas women undertake most of the work related to child care, food preparation and other household responsibilities such as collecting fuel and water. Women are also heavily involved in unpaid agricultural production. When all household activities are taken into account, women generally work longer hours than men. Without policies and investment in labour-saving technologies, women’s labour market participation is often not an option – even when the opportunities are available. In addition, governments must create a good investment climate through strengthening property rights and providing public goods such as roads, electricity and water, and ensure that women are involved in investment planning right from the beginning. 

Reduce gender inequalities in human capital

Improved access to education and better-quality education will help reduce some of the wage gap and, more importantly, allow women to diversify by widening the opportunities available to them. In countries where agriculture is a major source of employment for women, skill building should address relevant skills and knowledge gaps and focus on extension services and vocational training. A higher probability of obtaining a job in a particular sector will also influence parents’ educational choices for their children.  Policy interventions need to focus on school enrolment for girls, health interventions such as immunization and nutritional interventions that target women’s specific needs throughout their life cycle. Conditional transfer programmes, which are often targeted at the women in the household, have also been used successfully to improve the education, health and nutrition of children and women. 

Capitalize on public works programmes

Public works schemes can provide support to unskilled workers, including women. These are public labour-intensive infrastructure-development initiatives that provide cash or food-based payments in exchange for work.  

Strengthen women’s rights and voice through institutional change

The lack of voice suffered by women, especially in rural communities, is both cause and consequence of the gender differences observed in rural labour markets. Institutional changes can help achieve decent work opportunities and economic and social empowerment through labour markets and at the same time reduce gender inequalities in the context of informal employment in agriculture. Public policies and legislation can influence public attitudes and the values that underlie gender inequalities. Government legislation is essential for guaranteeing equitable employment conditions that protect workers in both formal and casual employment, the latter being of particular relevance to women. For example, governments can support the organization of women in informal jobs. At the same time, collective bargaining and voluntary standards can be important, in conjunction with more formal legislation. Rural producer organizations and workers’ unions can play a vital role in negotiating fairer and safer conditions of employment, including better product prices and wages, and in promoting gender equity and decent employment for men and women. 

Ensure that women are empowered and trained to exercise their rights and participate

There is a need for effective empowerment of women among the membership and leadership positions in producer organizations, cooperatives, workers’ unions, and outgrower schemes to ensure that rural women have a stronger voice and decision-making power. At the same time, it is necessary to promote gender sensitivity within representative bodies through the training of both men and women representatives, as this does not derive automatically from women’s participation. 

Key facts

Women comprise, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from 20 percent in Latin America to 50 percent in Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Their contribution to agricultural work varies even more widely depending on the specific crop and activity.

Women are more likely than men to hold low-wage, part-time, and seasonal employment. The gender gap in formal and informal wage employment is large and women tend to be paid.

Women are often time constrained and heavy and unpaid household duties that take them away from more productive activities.

Farms run by female-headed households tend to have less labour available for farm work because these households are typically smaller and have fewer working-age adult members.

Agriculture is the most important source of employment for women in rural areas in most developing country regions. But women are more likely than men to hold low-wage, part-time, seasonal employment. And they tend to be paid less even when their qualifications are higher than men’s.

Agriculture is the most important source of employment for women in rural areas in most developing country regions. A number of countries have seen substantial increases in the female share of the agricultural labour force in recent decades, due to a number of reasons, including conflict, HIV/AIDS and male out-migration.

Women’s participation in the agricultural labour force may underestimate the amount of work 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 in farm activities they may contribute more total time to the sector.

Female time use in agriculture varies widely depending on the crop and the phase of the production cycle, the age and ethnic group of the women in question, the type of activity and a number of other factors. But women are typically involved to some extent in all farming activities except ploughing.

In addition to the time they spend in agriculture, women usually allocate time to food preparation, child care and other household responsibilities. If care-giving is included in the calculations, studies have shown that women work significantly more than men.3

On average, women are paid less than men even for equivalent jobs and comparable levels of education and experience.4

Female-headed households face more severe labour constraints than male-headed households because they typically have fewer members but more dependants.

Household and community responsibilities and gender-specific labour requirements mean that women farmers cannot farm as productively as men and make it more difficult for them to respond when crop prices rise.

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.

Increasing female participation in the labour force has demonstrated positive impacts on economic growth.5

In most developing country regions, women who are employed are just as likely, or even more likely, than men to work in agriculture. However, in most countries women are more likely than men to be employed seasonally, and rural wage-earning women are more likely than men to hold low-wage jobs.


  1. J.S. McGuire & B.M. Popkin. 1990. Helping women improve nutrition in the developing world: beating the zero sum game. World Bank Technical Paper (IBRD) No. 114. Washington, DC, World Bank; A.R. Quisumbing & L. Pandolfelli. 2010. Promising approaches to address the needs of poor female farmers: resources, constraints, and interventions. World Development, 38 (4): 581–592. 
  2. J.R. Behrman, H.Alderman & J. Hoddinott. 2004. Hunger and malnutrition. Paper prepared for the Copenhagen Consensus – Challenges and Opportunities. Unpublished.
  3. N. Ilahi. 2000. The intra-household allocation of time and tasks: what have we learnt from the empirical literature? Policy Research Report on Gender and Development, Working Paper Series No. 13. Washington, DC, World Bank.
  4. S. Ahmed & P. Maitra. 2010. Gender wage discrimination in rural and urban labour markets of Bangladesh. Oxford Development Studies, 38(1): 83–112.
  5. S. Klasen & F. Lamanna. 2009. The impact of gender inequality in education and employment on economic growth: new evidence for a panel of countries. Feminist Economics, 15(3): 91–132.
SOFA 2010-2011


FAO Gender Programme
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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