Who would have thought there was a glass ceiling in the greenhouse? I'm serious. We are well aware of the gender imbalance in business and politics, but it seems that, in the arcane world of prize vegetable growing, women have long been fighting an unequal battle.
But now, thanks to a far-sighted piece of legislation which came into force four months ago, affording women equal rights at workingmen's clubs, the entire character of horticultural shows – and particularly where the prizes are going – is changing. In almost every other sphere of life, women have broken through to prove themselves at least the equal of men: once, we rarely saw a female taxi driver, and now a woman astronaut hardly piques our curiosity.
It is true, however, that female representation in the board rooms of Britain doesn't reflect the gender make-up of the population – only 5.7 per cent of executive directors of FTSE 150 companies are women. The same applies to the Houses of Parliament, and men still exercise a hegemony in enough areas of life to ensure that anyone with an interest in equality cannot be complacent.
From the frontiers of horticulture, then, some significant news. Competitive vegetable growing has traditionally been a male bastion, not entirely astonishing since it plays into recognised male characteristics: the desire to be competitive, and an interest in rules and regulations.
I recently visited a horticultural show in Oxfordshire, and was struck by the strict conditions by which competitors were bound. The only thing missing was random drug testing. There were very precise dimensions in some classes – for instance "twelve shallots for pickling, not from seed (not to exceed 2.5cm in diameter)" – and non-compliance would mean the badge of shame – N.A.S, or "Not According to Schedule" – being attached to the exhibit.
Anyway, I am grateful to the Financial Times, not the place where one would normally go for news on giant marrows, for revealing that women are now, if you like, a growing force in a world previously dominated by older men. The body representing allotment holders has seen female membership grow from a third to a half in recent years, and the age profile is also getting lower.
This coming weekend sees the Olympics of the vegetable world when the National Vegetable Society – founded more than 50 years ago – holds its annual championship, and it will certainly be dominated by men: last year's results reveal that only one woman was able to break the male stranglehold. Sherie Plumb (that's what I thought – she should be a fruit grower) is the Nancy Astor of the potato world, a pioneering presence, and has won national prizes for her shallots, her potatoes and her runner beans. Mrs Plumb spends long days in the garden, keeps detailed notes on her performance, and drives through the night with her husband to show her exhibits. "We aren't in it for the money," Mrs Plumb, 56, told the FT. "It's the challenge of achieving the perfect vegetable."
Had that been a man talking, it might have been the quest to grow the biggest vegetable. But as women have told us since time began, size isn't everything.