Breaking Ground: Celebrating Female Leaders in Agriculture on International Women’s Day

7 Mar 2024

Ploughing their own furrow: From finding time to take the dog out for his birthday to imposter syndrome and not baking cakes for the office, International Women’s Day is an ideal opportunity to celebrate leaders in the field of agriculture and rural enterprise.

With the stepping down of the National Farmers’ Union’s first female president female farming leaders have hit the headlines over recent weeks.

The general feeling seems to be that while Minette Batters broke down barriers in her handling of the most high-profile role in farming, the momentum must be kept up to make sure the glass ceilings she smashed through don’t ever close up again.

An encouraging statistic is that rather than female students making up the minority of places, land-based colleges are now reporting an even split. Females make up 50% of current students on agriculture courses run by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) – up from 37% five years ago. These figures are reflected nationwide, with Harper Adams University recording 41.3% female agriculture students enrolled in the academic year 2022/23, compared to just 23.6% a decade earlier.

However, ask any primary school aged child to draw a picture of a farmer and the chances are it will be an overall-wearing man stood next to a tractor – an almost identical image to those their parents and grandparents would have come up with.

Alix Ritchie, Programme Director of the wellbeing movement Farmstrong Scotland, believes social media is chipping away at these stereotypes.

“There are so many women out there who are telling the story of agriculture,” she said. “Not only are they positively sharing their working days, but they are educating the public about the work involved in producing high quality, sustainable food.

“The other thing I have noticed is that women in agriculture are supportive and promote each other, from a simple word of encouragement through to getting together to share face-to-face experiences, support and advice.”

As well as her role with Farmstrong, overseeing the wellbeing programme to support farmers and crofters, Alix serves on the Women in Agriculture Scotland committee.

“Representation is hugely important,” says Alix. “It’s so encouraging to see women take up positions at all levels. If agricultural students are now 50% female, we now need to ask if the agricultural organisations that represent them are reflective of this? There are a few good examples, but some have a long way to go.”

Jane Craigie runs an Aberdeenshire-based food and agri-business marketing agency and believes, like Alix, that “building each other up” is something women do best.

“Over the years I have taken advantage of leadership training to build confidence and fight the dreaded imposter syndrome,” explains Jane. “One of the main things I have learnt is to be true to yourself and stick to your values. It is amazing how many women within the Agri sector take the time to build each other up and offer their support; something as an industry we should be very proud of. A huge step for me was employing people, to have the confidence to grow the business to the next stage.”

Imposter syndrome is something Sarah Millar, chief executive of Quality Meat Scotland, fought for the first few months of her high-profile job banging the drum for Scotland’s red meat market, which is worth just shy of £3 billion to the Scottish economy.

“I was fine talking to the farmers – I’m one of them being a farmer’s daughter and married to a farmer – but the high-value corporate companies felt like a challenge to begin with. It was like we came from different worlds – which we did. Over time I learnt that if you know your stuff and have done your preparation this sector treats you equally to any man.”

Sarah wonders if it is her age, she is only 32, is the reason why she has never felt like her gender has been a barrier.

“We are just one female short of having an equal gender split on the QMS board. When you consider the first woman was appointed to the board 20 years ago, that shows what great strides have been made over recent years. I think we, as women in the privileged position of leadership, are always happy to keep strengthening the ladder for those coming behind us.”

Although her career has involved amazing travel opportunities such as attending COP 28 in Dubai, Sarah says her highlights have been closer to home such as speaking at the Highland Show three months after starting the job.

“Like so many farming families, the Highland Show is ingrained in our DNA, but I could never have imagined when I was a little girl that one day I would be delivering the massive presence QMS has at the show and standing up and speaking to all those people.”

Mother to three-year-old Grace, Sarah says she lives her life by the rule “I can have it all – but not all at once.”

“What I mean is I prioritise work and family,” she explains. “But because of this I am not going to the gym, I am not baking cakes for the office and some nights it’s a microwavable meal – but I get to take Grace to nursery and I do my job well. Trying to have and do everything all of the time doesn’t work. There is no shame in having a cleaner and not mending your husband’s trousers!”

Teresa Dougall, now the managing director of Scottish Quality Crops, knew nothing about farming when she turned up for her first day’s work as a personal assistant to the finance director at a livestock market.

Straight from college, aged 21, she loved mart days when she got to clerk for the auctioneers and “got the farming bug”.

She went on to set up her own farm administration business, which was wiped out almost overnight because of foot and mouth disease. She found work as a Defra inspector overseeing the cleansing and disinfection of infected farms, ending up director of regions for NFU Scotland via a decade working for Scottish Land and Estates.

“I think it’s a real credit to the agricultural industry that doors have never been shut to me – either because I’m a woman or didn’t come from a farming background,” reflects Teresa, who adds with a smile that in spite of her hectic workload she made time to take her beloved collie Jasper out for the day when it was his birthday.

“I’ve always believed that the only person who can stop you doing something you want is yourself. Having said that, I do believe life is made much easier if you actually enjoy your work and would encourage young women not to feel under pressure to take the first job offer, to find a career they feel passionately about.”

Julia Latto has worked for Scottish Enterprise for more than 25 years, leading on several national rural projects to open up benefits for both the economy and wider community. These include the Rural Leadership Programme and Agritourism Monitor Farm. She also sits on the board of the prestigious Oxford Farming Conference and is a member of the International Association of Programmes for Agriculture.

Julia says her interest in entrepreneurship and economic development stems right back to her very first day as a 17-year-old office junior in a textile business in her hometown of Hawick.

“They made me feel like family straight away and ignited my passion for ensuring businesses in rural areas are sustainable,” recalls Julia, who is a mother of two grown-up daughters and a son.

Looking back on those early years, Julia reflects: “It’s just amazing to think that when I started out as the office junior it was on a typewriter.”

Julia has travelled all over the world with her work including Australia, the USA and South Korea, which meant for “plenty of juggling” when her family was younger, not to mention fitting in time as a visiting researcher at Edinburgh University and gaining a degree in Business and Enterprise.

“My advice to other women is simple really,” concludes Julia. “I truly believe everyone has got a talent and potential and if you have a positive mindset you will find something you love. Don’t forget to find time to stay connected and speak to others though; there are a lot of lovely women out there extremely willing to offer help and support …”



Don’t try and be a domestic goddess when you get home from a hard day at work, prioritise what is really important

Build each other up. Taking the time to support others is always time well spent.

Most people have times in their life when they suffer from imposter syndrome. Be true to yourself, stick to your values and you’ll soon shake it off.

Find a job that you can feel passionate about; this can help career satisfaction more than salary or holiday allowance

If in doubt ask. There is no shame in asking for help.

Work experience is a great way of finding out whether a career option is right for you; even if it isn’t placements are a good addition to your cv