Blog Post

The status of employment for women in agrifood systems

Agrifood systems are a major source of employment worldwide. Yet women working within agrifood systems in low-income countries are more likely to have irregular, informal, and less well-paid jobs compared to men, and experience less favourable working conditions. Closing gender gaps is critically needed to create more sustainable and inclusive agrifood systems.

Working in agrifood systems provides millions of women with jobs and incomes, with the potential to provide better opportunities for economic growth, incomes, productivity and resilience. Women are present in different parts of the agrifood system, with a larger proportion working in primary agricultural production, food processing and service activities. 

Evidence from a recent meta-study from the CGIAR ‘Rethinking Food Markets’ Research Initiative suggests that there are still critical challenges in creating more inclusive agrifood systems that provide equal employment opportunities for both men and women. The stark reality is that women are more likely to be marginalised and employed in less favourable working conditions and jobs than their male counterparts.

What does the literature tell us about the status of employment for women in agrifood systems in low-income countries? And how can we close the gender gaps within agrifood systems to create better jobs and working conditions for all?

The following key insights emerged from the meta-study:

  • Women’s roles in agrifood systems tend to be marginalized and their working conditions are likely to be worse than men’s. Female employment is characterized by informality, inadequate working conditions, and concentration in lower-paid, less-skilled segments. The meta-study highlights several innovations that can create better jobs with improved working conditions and incomes in agrifood systems, such as contract farming, high-value and export-led value chains, and the adoption of certain certifications and standards. However, the jobs arising from these innovative pathways mostly benefit better-off, middle-aged male workers and less so for female workers. Most female workers do not get benefits such as health care, maternity leave, pensions or assurance of renewed working contracts. These inadequate working conditions for women end up reinforcing schemes that limit women’s development.
  • Female employment in agriculture is increasing in farm production and postharvest processes, but at a slower pace in transportation, commercial intermediation, and contract negotiation. Gender roles and stereotypes reinforce these differences. The roles of women in off-farm work in agrifood systems are more likely to be in less-profitable value chains and activities, or on worse terms than those of men due to restrictive traditional social norms or poor access to assets and resources. 
  • Globalization, contract farming and large-scale agricultural production may lower gender gaps, but the impact varies depending on the context. For instance, the worker’s initial situation, country, and existing regulations can influence varying levels of impact. While some of the literature highlights improvements in working conditions and wages for women, these effects are limited to certain value chains and contexts. The evidence is inconclusive on whether these innovative pathways are beneficial for women, as this varies across product lines, countries, and regions. Women may not be systematically excluded from high-value, export-oriented value chains or entrepreneurship in large-scale agrifood systems, but their participation can be constrained by discriminatory social factors. It is clear that a better understanding is needed on the effect of specific innovations on the employment prospects of women in different contexts. 
  • Digital technologies can enable women to access better services and improve productivity. The adoption of new technologies and automation can stimulate employment, create better working conditions and are particularly important for developing off-farm businesses for female workers in agrifood systems. The evidence suggests that the gender gap in digital technologies is closing more quickly. Despite this, women’s access to digital technologies and services continues to lag behind men’s. Sustained, quality access to assets and resources remains a challenge for the progression of many female workers in low-income countries.

Vi Nguyen is a Senior Coordinator for Innovations and Learning with ISEAL.

To learn more about the state of employment in agrifood systems in low-income countries, explore the meta-study from the CGIAR ‘Rethinking Food Markets’ Initiative. You can also read the learning blogs linked to this meta-study, delving into the key knowledge gaps arising from the study, as well as the overall main findings