Female Students in Agriculture

Their Increasing Numbers Now the Rule, Not the Exception

By Emma Hopkins - Published May 12, 2016

Fifty years ago, you wouldn't find more than a few women in college studying agriculture. You'd probably find even fewer working in it other than by helping out on the farm as a wife and mother.

Those days are long gone. At Purdue University and nationwide, the majority of students enrolling in agricultural majors are women. Marcos Fernandez, associate dean of Purdue's College of Agriculture, says the trend has been growing since the 1990s.

"In universities, enrollments have increased in general, and in agriculture the number of women coming in is outpacing men," Fernandez says.

In the 1970s when he attended college, 95-98 percent of ag students were men. Women now account for nearly 60 percent of agricultural students at Purdue.

Web Extra

Becoming Leaders

Marissa LorenzMarissa Lorenz (Photo by Tom Campbell)

And the women are succeeding, says Amy Jones, plant sciences recruitment and outreach coordinator and a member of the Purdue Extension Women in Agriculture team.

"We have had companies mention our women students are interviewing better and, in some cases, obtaining more jobs than the men," Jones says.

That is not surprising because more women at Purdue seem to be stepping into leadership roles in clubs.

Marissa Lorenz, a junior in animal sciences, has noticed that women hold many leadership roles in the College of Agriculture. In her time at Purdue, Lorenz has served as an animal sciences ambassador and has been secretary of the Ag Council, vice president of Block and Bridle and a member of the Collegiate Farm Bureau.

"It is women who are leading in these organizations, so I think this poses a challenge to men to step up and lead with us, and it is great when they do," she says.

This is a stark contrast to what Fernandez remembers about attitudes toward women in agriculture.

Seizing Opportunities

Shelby SwainShelby Swain (Photo by Tom Campbell)

"In my master's program in the 1980s, I remember the adviser of a close friend of mine told her animal science was no place for women," Fernandez says. "I think that women now are embracing the opportunities, and some of the perceived ‘don't pursue this' kind of attitude has been lifted."

Shelby Swain, a senior in agricultural economics concentrating in quantitative analysis, also feels that women have broken through in agriculture. She participates in five agricultural clubs.

"I didn't really feel intimidated going into the ag programs here at Purdue, and I think it's because role models I had were already doing such a great job leading the way," Swain says.

While male students still dominate in agronomy, ag systems management and ag engineering at Purdue, enrollments of women are especially increasing in animal science, agricultural communications and food science.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows trends of female students obtaining baccalaureate degrees by academic area. From 2004 to 2012, the number of environmental sciences degrees women obtained increased by 128 percent and food science degrees by 98 percent.

Jones says such numbers may reflect the influence women working in agriculture have had on young girls.

Learning from Mentors

Swain says having role models has made all the difference for her. "I have so many women role models in ag who have all done big things," she says. "My motivation going into ag was I wanted to be like them."

Role models abounded at a mentorship-building forum, organized by the Women in Agriculture Team at Purdue in February, for high school girls.

Lorenz says girls who think agriculture might hold potential for them should "go for it."

"Get involved in 4-H, FFA and those things that can help you find your true passion within agriculture," she says.

Purdue College of Agriculture - Student Enrollment

Fall 2015 Semester, All Levels

  • Total enrollment: 3,250
  • Female: 1,791 (55 percent)
  • Male: 1,459 (45 percent)

Source: Purdue College of Agriculture Office of Academic Programs

Largest increases in bachelor's degrees awarded to women nationally 2004-2012:

  • Environmental science and studies:
    2004: 767
    2012: 1,750
    % increase: 128
  • Food science and technology:
    2004: 304
    2012: 603
    % increase: 98
  • Animal sciences:
    2004: 2,676
    2012: 4,040
    % increase: 52
  • Agricultural mechanization and engineering:
    2004: 191
    2012: 285
    % increase: 49
  • Fisheries and wildlife:
    2004: 551
    2012: 801
    % increase: 45

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Agricultural Education Information System