Doing it for themselves

Categories: Features, Reflections and opinions

For International Women’s Day, three women discuss working in traditionally ‘male’ roles

Fifty-kilo cheese wheels; 340kg carcasses. Blood, sweat, traffic and bitterly cold early mornings—some jobs are hard enough without also having to overcome the pernicious yet persistent assumption that butchers, beef farmers and cheesemakers are always, and should always be, men. Fortunately, Borough Market is full of women happily defying stereotypes, who demand they be judged not by their size or gender, but by the results of their work.

The butcher
Patricia, Ginger Pig

Sometimes we have customers who don’t seem to want to be served by me because I’m a woman. They probably think I’m not physically capable; that I don’t have the talent. I think that is an attitude that stops women from doing a lot of different things. I think it’s a mental block, to be honest. Sure, learning to carry heavy carcasses takes time, but you just need to learn the technique.

I have often done ‘male’ jobs. Before this I was a pizza chef. When you stop thinking about your gender, people around you will stop thinking about it too. A lot of women ask me, “How can you work with all those men, 12 hours a day?” but I think it’s sad that they see that as a problem. When you work like this, you get to really know your colleagues. I’ve been here eight months now, and I love the atmosphere.

I started off on the cooking side (the more ‘female’ side, ha!) but I wanted to improve myself. I always want to keep learning. You never stop learning in this job—colleagues who have been butchers for 20 years or more still tell me that. Different countries have different butchery customs, and I am always asking colleagues to teach me what they know. In time, I have started to notice my skills really increasing. The beef is my favourite, because that is the hardest to master—but I enjoy everything I do. My male colleagues say to me, “You’ll be so much better than us, because you have to go so much further to prove yourself.” What matters to me is that they think I’m doing a good job.

Mary Quicke

The cheesemaker
Mary Quicke, Quicke’s (sold at Heritage Cheese)

For centuries cheesemakers were all women—but, just like when tractors get to African farms, the men take over when the mechanisation turns up! That said, while in the rest of the farming the physical challenges have lessened, making cheese, particularly rounds of cheddar, is physically very hardcore. The joy of farming and cheesemaking, though, is that you are acting with and on real things: calves, cows, cheese, so it will always be physical.

I can still go to farming meetings where I will be the only woman, although less and less. We came up with a really neat way of dealing with cheese mites, which I shared with the other cheesemakers. No one else took it up, preferring more expensive solutions or to take the damage on the chin. Was that about gender? Do women bring an attitude of working alongside nature rather than mastering it? I don’t know.

The advantages of being a woman in cheese and farming are scarcity value and difference. Lots of people root for you. Men are fun to work with, and every woman has the capacity to terrify a man at a hundred paces by reminding him of his angry mother. Just knowing that power is there is enough—there’s usually no need to use it. To any woman looking for a career in cheesemaking, I’d say go for it. Enjoy. You might not end up the wealthiest, but you will be fulfilled, satisfied, fascinated, challenged and have a whole bundle of fun.

The beef farmer
Lizzie Vines, Wild Beef

I’m not a country girl by birth—which is probably just as well, as I think if I’d had an idea of how much work for how little money farming would be, I might not have stuck at it. I used to joke with my husband Richard that I felt like Margot in the Good Life. I was an enthusiastic amateur but really, I was completely new to it all when we decided to start farming cattle in Devon in 1993.

Fortunately, beef cattle are low maintenance as far as farming goes—you have to keep an eye on them, make sure they’re eating properly, do regular TB tests and help with calving if they’re struggling, but they’re far less demanding than dairy cattle. The driving and sitting in traffic I do between Borough and Dartmouth three times a week is really the most physically exerting part of the job.

I have helped with calving, but it’s naming that is my big thing. I can tell you when a cow was born from the name it has: in 2012, I named our new-borns after the British Olympic rowing team. The twins I helped birth when Richard was away are named Horatio and Nelson. I have a great sense of the family relationships between the cattle. When we were doing TB tests recently, there was one that just wouldn’t return to the field. She insisted on waiting by the pen. We couldn’t understand it, then I realised she was waiting for her sister to come through. I see mothers go a long distance with their calves, and older cows act like nannies to calves that aren’t their own—they support other mothers. There’s a real friendship there. It’s lovely to see.