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There is an urgent need for more women in agricultural research, particularly at PhD level and beyond, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The 2010–11 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture, launched by the FAO last week (7 March), said that female scientists are essential to efforts to increase the productivity of farms run by women in developing countries.

Nienke Beintema, programme head of the Agricultural Science & Technology Indicators (ASTI) initiative, which provided data for the FAO report, told SciDev.Net that the presence of more women in top decision-making and management roles would help address the specific problems that women farmers face, through shared understanding.

Unlike a man, the report said, a typical woman farmer has a smaller area of land with fewer livestock; no access to bank credit; is unable to open a bank account on her own; and is much less likely to use the latest seed varieties and fertilisers.

Vicki Wilde, director of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research's Gender & Diversity Program and the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) scheme, said: "The majority of women researchers already have a Bachelor's degree. [But] when you go further up the ladder you find fewer and fewer women, which means very few women are in positions of influence to help determine the priorities that the research institutions are going to work on."

Beintema said that family support is key to reaching higher positions in environments where everybody expects women only to raise children.

Wilde said that, although networking can also help overcome cultural barriers, women "lack access to the professional network that men can tap into far more easily" and "lack role models and mentors".

And, when women do reach higher levels in male-dominated profession like agriculture, they face unfriendly policies and practices that push them back, she said. "Some of them get discouraged and drop out."

The age limit of 35 for most fellowship programmes is also an issue: "African women are not as mobile as they can be in their later 30s or 40s because of their family and cultural traditions".

Wilde said it was important to upgrade current curricula and "reach back to the schools" to help children see agricultural research and development as an inspiring career choice for addressing issues such as hunger, poverty and climate change.

She added: "The centrality of gender issues to the development of effective and lasting solutions has not been exaggerated. If only the leaders of agriculture and development would take this new information seriously, they would feel compelled to reorient their services and resources to better serve women".