Gender in Agriculture:
Closing the Knowledge Gap

Agnes R. Quisumbing, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Terri L. Raney, Andre Croppenstedt, Julia A. Behrman, Amber Peterman (eds.)

Book Review

Explaining why it is that half of the world’s farmers are systematically underperforming can be an elusive business. However, Gender in Agriculture: Closing the Knowledge Gap from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has managed to do just that. The book brings together a series of background studies commissioned for the FAO’s 2011 report, ‘The State of Food and Agriculture 2010–11: Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development’ (1) and specifically focuses on the gender knowledge gaps – which are many, and run deep – that have existed in the study of agriculture up until now.

For a development research and practice veteran, working one’s way through the book is an experience in encountering well-known facts along with surprising new evidence.

The chapters on data and methods for gender analysis in agriculture show us that complexity can be captured and understood only when broken down into separate, key types of data without losing sight of the relationship between these data sets. In doing so, we can challenge received wisdom. For example, Cheryl Doss contests the oft-quoted fact that women produce 60–80 per cent of food in the developing world, mainly because when measuring women’s labour, it is difficult to separate it from related tasks, as well as from men’s labour, ‘and that cannot be understood properly without considering the gender gap in access to land, capital, assets, human capital, and other productive resources’ (p. 69).

But it is as much about the kind of data collected as it is about whom to ask and how. Julia Behrman and co-authors remind us of the fact that men and women spend income under their control in different ways, and that they do not always pool resources. Therefore, the best way to understand power bargaining and intra-household decision-making is to consistently collect data from both women and men. The use of both quantitative and qualitative methods is recommended in order to analyse a range of agricultural issues efficiently, and both methods are explained for any readers who do not know, and for those who do not remember.

I remain sceptical, however, about looking for new models to explain farmers’ bargaining power and decision-making processes. Julia Behrman and co-authors argue that ‘formulating the appropriate model of household bargaining must be based on a better understanding of culture and context’ (p. 33), but even if qualitative social scientists are involved, this seems self-defeating. Do we really need models to predict behaviour and change to be applied on a particular local setting and at a specific point in time? Not to mention the disbelief on the faces of many practitioners in the South that these attempts provoke. Call me conservative, but I still believe that social methods are more powerful, cheaper, and more effective than numeric models, in revealing the likely outcomes of actors’ motivations and agency.

The chapters documenting gender gaps in assets and key agricultural inputs bring us back to the persistent reality of the constraints on women’s access to land, agriculture-related services and opportunities. The authors offer us a wide range of policy mechanisms that could be put in place to help women to overcome their disadvantaged position, but also highlight the role of social norms, family responsibilities, life-cycle stages, and limits on availability of time that could still unbalance an improved equation. In a brilliant study, for example, Jody Harris analyses four health and nutritional disorders experienced by men and women affecting agricultural productivity – undernutrition, iron-deficiency anaemia, HIV, and malaria – and finds that the impact on women’s production and productivity is different from that of men’s because of both biological and social vulnerabilities.

The section on markets and gender looks in more detail at the barriers that women face in accessing higher-value markets, showing that working on gender and markets needs to go far beyond involving more women in value chains. Deborah Rubin and Cristina Manfre argue that ‘In many ways the diversity of approaches is evidence of the infancy of the intersection of these two technical areas and the steep learning curve facing value chain and gender practitioners as they attempt to integrate their activities, goals and objectives’ (p. 301). Initiatives that integrate market systems and gender while tackling food security appeal to common sense, for example, developing value chains in crops with added nutritional and health benefits.

However, warnings are raised once again about the need to pay attention to women’s time-allocation patterns, access to and control over income, and decision-making opportunities. This section of the book makes crystal clear that, as important as it is to tackle women’s access to productive assets and market opportunities, it is equally important to work on social norms and women’s time burden, the two long-ignored elephants in the room of economic development.

The final section of the book comprises three studies on research, development, and extension systems. They offer an array of practical mechanisms for both upping women’s influence in terms of knowledge production and practice, and for increasing their numbers in the scientific community within agriculture. This is not new: calls for women to set priorities for research, encouraging young girls to pursue scientific careers, or strengthening women’s groups to better articulate their needs and demands, for example, are familiar territory.

What is new is that we now have updated data, albeit scattered and imperfect, to justify and support these efforts. Moreover, the old familiar strategies are now being promoted in the context of a shift in focus from production towards a broader view of agriculture and food systems. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to read this book; it is one of those published once every three to five years or so, that guides one’s thinking and one’s work.

However, for me, a stronger focus on power analysis would have made it more relevant. Questions that come to mind include: What is the role of the global forces influencing national governments to divert resources from smallholder farms towards big industrial farming in this picture? Can the worrying currents keeping women from education and training centres be transformed, and what could make more governments take up the gauntlet this time around? That said, however, this book is an inspiring and hugely useful resource for both newcomers to the field and those already working in the area. Clearly and accessibly written, this book will appeal to practitioner and academic audiences alike.


1 See (last checked by the author 10 December 2014).

© 2015, Dennis Aviles, Sustainable Agriculture and Gender Adviser, Oxfam GB, UK

Gender in Agriculture: Closing the Knowledge Gap is published by Springer
Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.1 (2015)