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To mark Women's Month, agricultural economist Wendy Engel writes about her experience in this male-dominated field.
And how their shock echoed back at me in twinges of apprehension as I arrived, on that very first day in 1995, at JS Marais Building at Stellenbosch University, to be greeted by a not terribly welcoming tannie who told me: “Young lady you are at the wrong department! Check on your registration form which course you have registered for!”
I was baffled because I had visited the department before I signed up. I had in fact met with the Dean of the faculty prior to registration and I knew I was in the correct place. It turned out that the irate tannie at reception suffered some confusion at seeing a young women registering for this particular course simply because it was completely out of the norm.
And this conviction held by many in the realm of farming and agriculture that only those raised on farms, who were dominantly white and male, would be the one’s studying and leading in this field is an opinion that I and many other women working and studying in the agricultural sciences were often confronted with.
The historical roots of my family are centred in the agricultural and fishing communities of Elim and Hermanus. It is unusual for the descendants of these communities to choose career options in the agricultural sector. The scepticism I encountered was mirrored by responses of family members and friends to my career choice. Today the choice is admired and respected – testimony to the change in attitudes from within the sector and to the prospects for wider participation of the broader South African community.
For centuries, land has represented power. History suggests that people, land and its possession were linked to survival. Land and the narratives around land are saturated with ideas of power, ownership, race and patriarchy. As a consequence of this history in South Africa few women entered the field of agriculture.
I was one of less than a handful of students studying Agricultural Economics that had not been raised on a farm. Throughout my studies and later in work environments, I was often the youngest in the team and the only woman. The baptism of fire at Stellenbosch, and later at Pretoria University, moulded my resolve and sense of confidence in my opinion, beliefs and ability. Stellenbosch University, in particular, found a special place in my heart and over time I really felt an acceptance and respect from my peers and lecturers for my opinions and contribution.
My early work experience, for a period of time, provided a dejavu experience of my first days at university. For the longest time I left my true self at home when I went to work. And this strange dissection of my personality seemed necessary because of the way I and other women in the field were treated. At agricultural events we were often ignored by the farmers and agricultural companies’ representatives. Met with near constant disbelief and barely concealed derision it simply seemed safer and saner to silence myself.
The turning point, oddly, came during a work-related braai for farmers when my manager told me, in front of other colleagues, that I should consider eating meat from the braai, just this once, and not just the salads in order to avoid offending the farmer.
I had two choices that day – to leave even more of myself at home in a further attempt not to offend or to stand up for myself, my choices and the salads on my plate and not accept this particular censor from my manager. I’m proud to say I chose the latter and from that day I realised that I had a right to be myself in the space I worked in – and that by being utterly me, and not attempting to constantly conform, I could bring new perspectives and add real value to my work.
The landscape of farming has changed since that first day, 23 years ago, when I was told I didn’t belong. There are far more opportunities afforded to young women interested in studying agriculture and working the land. I feel vindicated by my career choice; have immense gratitude to inspiring mentors, men and women, black and white, that have crossed my path and I am excited at the prospects that the agricultural sector holds for job creation and growing a more inclusive economy.
Land, agriculture and food are enormously polarising subjects in South Africa and that is why it is critical that the diverse voices of South African women working, owning and nurturing the land not be silenced. Let us as women leading in agricultural research, finance, conservation, farming and food security tell our own stories and take our place in the creation of a sustainable and secure future for South Africa.
Wendy Engel is an agriculture economist and part-time farmer working as a researcher on the WWF SA Nedbank Sustainable Agriculture Partnership with 15 years experience in agriculture, finance and conservation. This article was first published by Huffington Post.