Winter 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA8

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Targeting Women in Agribusiness1


Suzanna Smith
Assistant Professor
Human Development, Department of Home Economics
University of Florida-Gainesville

M. E. Swisher
Assistant Director
International Programs
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida-Gainesville

Constance Shehan
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology
University of Florida-Gainesville

Although some attention has been given to women's work on family farms, little research has been conducted on women who are employed on larger-than family enterprises, even though larger farms account for an increasing share of all agricultural production.2 The growth in information processing and administrative functions in corporate agriculture suggests that women, who usually dominate these areas of employment, may be increasing their participation in agribusiness.3 For example, clerical employment in agriculture rose 75% between 1972 and 1982.4 If women are overrepresented in certain jobs, however, their opportunities for advancement may be limited, either by the structure of the industry or by human capital factors. As a result, talented women may go unrecognized and their skills underused.

Extension agents or specialists can provide particularly valuable information to employers of large-scale operations interested in expanding opportunities and incentives for women. Trends in the nonagricultural sector indicate that working conditions, availability of benefits, and family support are important to employee job satisfaction, commitment, and retention.5 These factors will become important not only to employees but employers who want to attract and retain a trained agricultural labor force and improve employee productivity and performance. Because little information is available about the agricultural labor force, Extension personnel need to gather information so they can target program efforts at this labor force. The agent or specialist particularly needs to know the characteristics of the population, including the concentration of men and women in certain jobs.

Data Collection Procedures and Survey Questionnaire

As an example of how Extension can target women in agribusiness, this study focused on the ornamental horticulture industry. We selected a random sample of 516 nurseries from a statewide Florida Department of Agriculture list of nurseries.6 Because previous research indicated employment was concentrated in larger firms but smaller firms were more likely to respond, we oversampled larger firms. Our total sample was 336 firms in the largest size classes and 180 firms in the smallest. We mailed a one-page survey to firm managers or owners and a reminder post card two weeks later. A total of 142 usable questionnaires were returned, a 28% response. Firm owners or managers were asked to identify the number and gender of full-time employees in four occupational classes: managers/supervisors, clerical workers, skilled labor, and unskilled labor. We also asked how many employees worked part-time, and if and when the firm employs seasonal labor.


Results were obtained for 3,106 workers employed in 142 nurseries. Forty-two percent were women. Eighty-two percent of these employees worked full-time, and women were as likely as men to work full-time.

We found significant differences (p<.01) between men and women on occupational status. Women were significantly less likely than men to be employed in management positions and were significantly more likely to hold clerical positions. Men had 64% of all managerial positions, which made up 13% of the work force. Women accounted for 92% of clerical workers, which made up six percent of the work force. Women were also less likely to be unskilled laborers (p<.01), which made up nearly two-thirds of the work force. No differences existed between men and women employed as skilled laborers - about 17% of the work force.

We also looked at differences by firm size class. We found that the larger nurseries accounted for only six percent of nurseries in the state, but for 32% of all employees, even after we adjusted for the oversampling bias. In larger nurseries, employment patterns for women were the same as for the sample as a whole. Women were underrepresented as managers and overrepresented as clerical workers. In small nurseries, however, women were overrepresented as clerical workers, but not over- or underrepresented in the other occupational status categories. In addition, women were more likely than men to be employed in smaller nurseries.


Our results suggest that women are an important segment of the ornamental horticulture industry whose opportunities for advancement and skill development could be improved through targeted Extension programming. Opportunities for enhancing women's job status may be greatest in larger nurseries, where women are underrepresented as managers.

Extension programs may be able to help employers move women into management positions by training women in technical aspects of production, employee relations, and labor laws. Research found that direct contact with county Extension agents was a primary source of information for nursery managers, and Extension publications also represented an important source of information.7 Our research suggests that Extension could deliberately target these educational tools and outreach methods to women.

The concentration of employees in larger nurseries provides an excellent opportunity for targeted Extension programming. Larger nurseries represent a well-defined and concentrated group, and programs aimed at this group can have an impact on a substantial proportion of the total ornamental horticulture labor force.

Our experience demonstrated the usefulness of research-based information about potential target audiences. It also underscored the importance of identifying subgroups, such as men and women, and managers and clerical workers, when designing programs.

An adequate research base is particularly important when developing programs in areas not previously or frequently addressed by Extension, such as women in the agricultural labor force. Multidisciplinary research and program planning may be particularly useful in these cases.


1. This research was supported by the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station and has been assigned the Journal Series Number R-00493.

2. See, W. Haney, "Women," in Rural Society in the U.S., D. A. Dillman and D. J. Hobbs, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982); C. Sachs, "American Farm Women," in Women and Work, Vol. 2, A. H. Stromberg, L. Laurwood, and B. A. Gutak, eds. (Newbury Park, California: Sage Press, 1987), 233-48; and T. K. Gradshaw and E. J. Blakely, Rural Communities in Advanced Industrial Society (New York: Praeger, 1979).

3. H. Hartmann, R. E. Kraut, and L. A. Tilly, Computer Chips and Paper Clips: Technology and Women's Employment (Washington, D. C.: National Academic Press, 1986).

4. I. Audirac, "The Automation of the Farm Office: The Impacts of High Tech Farming on Women" (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Athens, Georgia, 1988).

5. J. F. Pittman and D. K. Orther, "Predictors of Spousal Support for the Work Commitments of Husbands," Journal of Marriage and the Family," L (May 1988), 35-348.

6. Variation in the organization of commodity groups on a statewide basis affected the available pool of respondents. For the ornamental horticulture industry, the best available list of producers is a statewide Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services directory of commercial nurseries. It includes information about firm location, gross sales, and type of plants, and categorizes firms into size class on the basis of number of plants produced.

7. D. L. Ingram and J. R. Strain, "Central and South Florida Nursery Characteristics," Circular 593 (Gainesville: University of Florida, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 1984).