I saw egg-laying hens crammed into microwave-size wire cages stacked up to the ceiling. I saw pregnant sows confined to iron-galvanized steel crates. I saw chickens and turkeys that had gone lame because their bodies were too big for their legs to support.
I saw all this when, curious about food production, I lived with factory farmers. The factory farmers were kind and warm to me, welcoming me into their homes, but they viewed their animals more as edible commodities than animate creatures. The animals were nameless, anonymous masses, carefully hidden from public sight in windowless warehouses. Their lives were miserable—stinking, sunless. Though my appetite vanished, I developed a thirst: I wanted to devise animal welfare solutions.
Twenty-five years old at the time, fresh off Wall Street, I decided to leave the safe world of suits and spreadsheets and skyscrapers behind for the unpredictable, dangerous one of farm fields and factories. Switching my dry-cleaned skirts and high-heeled pumps for stained sweat pants and sturdy black boots, I launched into an international expedition. A small suitcase in hand, I investigated animal farms in eight countries: Canada, the United States, Mexico, Belize, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.
I rode trucks and tractors, snowmobiles and motorbikes. I stamped and stacked, and raked and cleaned. I caught and caged animals, and herded and chased them. Mostly, though, I engaged in long, heartfelt conversations—hundreds of them—with farm workers, owners, and corporate executives. These individuals, I noticed, varied in many respects—ranging in income from minimum wage to millionaire, in language from English to Spanish to Mandarin to Malay—but the great majority of them, especially those who worked full-time, were men.
The official data corroborates my experience. Only one out of every six full-time farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers in the U.S. is a woman, according to 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just one out of every seven principal farm operators is a woman, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.
Over the course of my conversations with men (and then more men), I began to wonder, what would be the effect of more women working in agriculture? Gender, of course, cannot be the only factor affecting the state of the industry (other important factors include limp legislation, rubber-stamp inspections, corporate hegemony, misleading labeling, and consumer confusion), but could gender be a factor?
A study of more than 10,000 Americans published by Italian and English researchers in 2012 finds that men and women overlap by only 10 percent in their personality trait distributions. The study states that the greatest difference between men and women is sensitivity, a trait defined as differentiating “people who are sensitive, aesthetic, sentimental, intuitive, and tender-minded from those who are utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, and tough-minded.”
Another study, published in the journal Brain and Cognition in 2011, demonstrates that men and women differ in their capacity for compassion, defined as “a moral emotion related to the perception of suffering in others, and resulting in a motivation to alleviate the afflicted party.” The study is fascinating, as it shows that men and women differ not only in how they process compassion psychologically—but also neurologically. Women’s “brain processing” for compassion is more elaborate than men’s, resulting in “a greater emotional sensitivity in women when viewing aversive and suffering situations.” Women, the study finds, are especially responsive to “scenes of illness”—scenes that construct the background of most factory farms.
Other studies conclude that women are more empathic than men, both psychologically and neurologically. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book On Human Nature, scientist E.O. Wilson describes how interpersonal differences between men and women become evident as early as birth, with baby girls smiling more than baby boys, for instance. Men and women differ so much in their attributes and emotions that some researchers have even described them as possessing “two human natures.” Differences between men and women are thought to arise from divergent evolutionary sexual selection pressures in the areas of mating and parenting.
Whether or not society is aware of the science on the differences between men and women, it overwhelmingly agrees with it. A 2008 Pew research poll of more than 2,000 Americans found that 80 percent believe women to be more compassionate than men. In addition, Americans rank women as more honest, emotional, intelligent, and creative than men, while being equally hard-working and ambitious.
The differences between men and women extend definitively to their opinions on farm animals. Polls across the United States and Europe show that women are more concerned about farm animals than men, and are more likely to favor better treatment for them and to support increased protective legislation.
Gender differences translate to eating habits as well. Women everywhere eat less meat and less fast food than men, and are more likely to be vegetarian than men. In addition, women are more likely to purchase organic food, think about food safety, and evaluate health, nutrition, and sustainability in making their dining decisions, according to the 2013 Food & Health Survey.
Producer women seem to feel the same way as consumer women. The women I met in agriculture showed a clear preference for working on organic and small farms, which are more likely than factory farms to reflect the values of animal welfare, human health, and environmental sustainability.
My conversations with agricultural men and women were starkly different. Men tended to discuss costs, breeds, feeds, technologies, companies—profit-minded concepts. Women, in contrast, preferred to talk about their observations of animals, their opinions of them, their experiences with them—more personal concepts.
When I asked, as I often did, “What do you think of animals?” men would sometimes repeat, eyebrows raised, “What do I think of them?” Women, in comparison, often welcomed the question. Some of them expressed a “love” for animals. Women, I noticed, were also more likely than men to detect personality in animals, and to view them as individuals instead of entities.
A dairy farmer in Canada told me, “Animals convert what we feed them into products we can use. They digest food we can’t to make something for us. That’s all they’re here for. We can never think of them in human terms.” His 31-year-old daughter, however, thought of them very much in human terms. “I love cows,” she said. “Every cow has her own personality. I’d say, though, that most of them are gentle and friendly. They form friendships just like we do. Socializing is very important to them. I don’t like the idea that they’re just numbers, so when they’re born, I write down names for all of them in my book, next to their numbers. No one knows their names except me.”
I lived with a Mennonite missionary dairy family for a while in Belize. Their dairy farm, dotted with shade-giving palm trees, was managed primarily by the youngest of eight children, a cheerful, sprightly 18-year-old. As I helped her gather her small herd of cows one evening, I was struck by her affection for her cows. “I grew these cows up,” she said. “I washed them every day. I braided their tails. When my favorite cow died, I cried for days.” She knew her cows very well. “Those two cows there, Aida and Anita, are best friends. They’re always together. Belgian and Brady are friends, too—I see them hanging out more these days. Cows like hanging out with cows their own age, not with younger or older cows.”