“Bring Your Wife, Your Daughter or Your Sister”: Dr. Kathleen Colverson on Gender in Agricultural Development
This post was written by Meeri Kim.
For over 25 years, Kathleen Colverson has facilitated interactive workshops all over the world, teaching sustainable practices in agricultural production, marketing, food safety and nutrition.
The common thread among all her trainings? They emphasize the importance of looking at food systems through the lens of gender. Before kicking off a session, she first scans her audience: how many men are there? How many women? Are they of different ages? Ethnicities?
Often, when training smallholder farmers in resource-limited communities, she’ll look out into the crowd to find only male faces staring back at her. Colverson pulls no punches in letting the audience know of her disappointment.
“I tell them, ‘I’ll see you next time, but you’d better bring your wife, your daughter or your sister, because I’m sure you’re not the only one doing the work, and I want to see more women and girls before I talk to you again,’” says Colverson, who currently serves as an associate research scientist in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida and senior gender scientist for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems. “Women in developing countries, in general, are less literate, less numerate and less able to attend trainings. There’s a whole list of different constraints they face that men don’t.”
But in order for development projects to have a lasting impact, the interventions must be targeted to the right audience. When it comes to improving food safety in smallholder poultry farms in Kenya, for example, the individuals who manage risk are overwhelmingly women. They have a hand in nearly every activity of the value chain, including caring for the birds, preparing the carcasses for consumption and selling them at local markets. Each of these steps exposes them to the greater possibility of food-related illnesses.
However, Colverson notes that many projects in agricultural research fail to take gender into account. Food safety initiatives that could potentially save lives in these rural farming communities — like the creation of a new poultry vaccine or feed — are being pitched only to men. It could be that the researchers involved assume farming is a male-only role or that the husbands will pass along information to their wives, which often does not occur.
“Most people in agricultural research are not social scientists. They’re biophysical scientists with specific skills, and it’s rare that you have a biophysical scientist who understands the importance of gender,” says Colverson. “They frequently don’t understand the social context they’re working in and their own implicit biases around gender. There’s just a whole litany of reasons why projects aren’t successful if you don’t consider agricultural systems with a gender lens.”
That’s why, in addition to hands-on work with the farmers themselves, she invests time training other researchers who have no background in gender on how to incorporate it into their research.
Colverson herself started out on the other side of the divide, beginning her career with degrees in zoology and animal nutrition, influenced by her time growing up on a farm. She moved up the ranks of the ivory tower, eventually landing a faculty position at a university in upstate New York, where she specialized in a combination of dairy and equine sciences.
“I was getting more and more interested in gender issues, because I was the only female in a faculty of 30 males at the time,” she said. “I always felt this tremendous discomfort with being the only female, and I realized that something had to be done about this.”
The school hired her with just a master’s degree, on the assumption that she would work toward her Ph.D. while teaching. Colverson put together her own interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, combining her interests in livestock, development and gender. She managed to juggle a full-time faculty position and her doctoral work while also raising two sons.
“For about seven or eight years, my life was insane. I finally completed my Ph.D., got tenure at the university — and then I left,” said Colverson. “It wasn’t where I saw my life going. I didn’t see myself having the impact of working on gender issues in farming systems in that academic role. So, I quit.”
Her career eventually led her to the University of Florida, where she started working on projects to develop training materials that integrated gender into livestock and agricultural systems. Today, she serves as one of the field’s leading gender scientists, lending her expertise to projects such as “Chakula Salama: A Risk-Based Approach to Reducing Foodborne Disease and Increasing Production of Safe Foods in Kenya,” funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety. Her role in Chakula Salama, which means “safe food” in Swahili, includes a gender analysis of food safety responsibilities and risks along the poultry value chain. Her work will help create culturally appropriate and gendered interventions that increase food safety on smallholder poultry farms.
The tireless work of Colverson and her peers is slowly leading to a paradigm shift in the field. Large funding agencies, like USAID, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Bank, now require gender scientists to be involved in certain projects. And, Colverson notes, more young people, including men, are showing interest in gender research and realizing its significance for innovation and success in agriculture and food systems.
“To me, this is a lifelong mission, and that’s the way I’ve always seen it. I can’t tell you how many workshops I’ve done, all over the world, just to help people understand the importance of gender issues,” says Colverson. “My husband says to me, ‘Honey, you’re planting seeds for future change.’ I say, ‘Sweetheart, I’d love to see a tree grow in my lifetime.’”
Meeri Kim is a freelance writer working with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.