Smallholder farmers in lower-income countries often lack access to agricultural inputs, services, and markets. This holds especially for female farmers, with important negative implications for agricultural productivity, child welfare, and rural development. Contract farming is promoted as a means to improving farmers’ access to inputs, services, and markets – and thereby household income and welfare. Could contract farming also reduce prevalent gender disparities? And does it matter who within the household holds the contract? Here, we address these questions and explore patterns, drivers, and implications of women’s participation in contract farming. For this purpose, we use a unique dataset that is nationally representative of smallholder farmers in five African countries, which is the exception in this literature. Moreover, the data allow us to differentiate between different forms of women’s participation in contract farming, which is also an exception in this literature. We differentiate between female-headed and male-headed households and the gender of the contract holder. We find that participation rates among women are lower than those among men – but higher than previous case studies suggest. Our results regarding the importance of the gender of the contract holder for household living standards are inconclusive, for both male-headed and female-headed households, and there is great heterogeneity across countries. We conclude that the topic merits further exploration and discuss directions for future research and implications for policy.