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Traditional farming practices and the evolution of gender norms across the globe

By Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn


The gender division of labor varies significantly across societies. In particular, there are large differences in the extent to which women participate in activities outside of the home. For instance, in 2000, the share of women aged 15 to 64 in the labor force ranged from  a low of 16.1% in Pakistan to 90.5% in Burundi.

A number of scholars have argued that these differences reflect differences in underlying cultural values and beliefs. Consistent with this, data on self-reported values about gender confirm that countries with lower female labor force participation also have stronger beliefs of gender inequality. However, this culture-based explanation still leaves unanswered the deeper question of why cultural differences exist in the first place.

One hypothesis, initially proposed by Ester Boserup (1970), is that the origin of these differences lies in the different types of agriculture  traditionally practiced across societies. In particular, she highlights important differences between shifting agriculture and plough agriculture. Shifting agriculture, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor-intensive with women actively participating in farm work. By contrast, plough agriculture is more capital-intensive, using the plough to prepare the soil. Unlike the hoe or digging stick, the plough requires significant upper body strength, grip strength, and bursts of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it. As well, farming with the plough is less compatible with simultaneous childcare, which is almost always the responsibility of women. As a result, men tended to specialize in agricultural work outside the home.

Within plough agriculture societies, centuries of a gender-based division of labor created a cultural belief that it is more natural for men to work outside the home than women. These cultural beliefs then continue to persist even after the economy transitions from agriculture to industry and services. Through this cultural channel, traditional agriculture affects the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home today.

We empirically tested this hypothesis by combining pre-industrial ethnographic data, reporting whether societies traditionally used the plough in pre-industrial agriculture, with contemporary measures of individuals’ views about gender roles, as well as measures of female participation in activities outside the home. Using this linked data we found that countries with ancestors that traditionally engaged in plough agriculture have greater gender inequality today. In particular, traditional plough agriculture is associated with self-reported attitudes reflecting greater gender inequality, and with lower female labor force participation, less female firm ownership, and less female participation in politics.

Our study complements the cross-national estimates with analyses using individual-level data from national censuses of eight countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. (These are all countries for which the micro data necessary for the analysis is available.) Comparing women living within the same district of a given country but from different ethnic backgrounds, we show that ancestral plough use is associated with less female labor force participation today.

We also explore differences across individuals in self-reported beliefs about gender roles, taken from the World Values Surveys. Looking across 700 regions within 79 countries, we find that a tradition of plough use is associated with a greater prevalence of the belief that men should have priority to jobs over women, and that men make better leaders than women.

Having traced the long-term impact of traditional plough-use on gender norms, we finally turned to an analysis of the precise channels underlying the effects. It is possible that the persistence of cultural beliefs and values explains the developments we identify. But, it is also possible that traditional plough use also affected the formation of specific institutions, markets, and policies, which in turn affected the activities of women in society. To disentangle the impact of the plough working through institutions versus direct cultural persistence, we examined the behavior of the children of immigrants to the United States and to twenty-six European countries. The sample of immigrant children is particularly informative because it provides us with a set of individuals who now live in identical institutional settings, but have different cultural backgrounds. Even within this group, we find that a history of ancestral plough-use is still strongly related to lower female labor force participation and to stronger attitudes of gender inequality.

Although our findings should not be interpreted as showing that only history matters, our findings do show that history does matter, and that to fully understand differences in current cultural traits around the globe it is important to look back in time at their evolution and persistence.

Alberto Alesina, Paolo Guiliano, and Nathan Nunn are the authors of “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, which is available to read for free for a limited time. Paola Giuliano is an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Global Economics and Management Group at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Her main areas of research are culture and economics and political economy.Professor Giuliano is a faculty research fellow of the NBER and the CEPR, and a research affiliate of IZA (Institute for the Study of Labor). She received the Young Economist Award from the European Economic Association in 2004. Nathan Nunn is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University. Professor Nunn’s primary research interests are in economic history, economic development, political economy and international trade. He is an NBER Faculty Research Fellow, a Research Fellow at BREAD, and a Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA). He is also currently co-editor of the Journal of Development Economics. Alberto Alesina is the Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. He served as Chairman of the Department of Economics from 2003 – 2006. He is a leader in the field of Political Economics and has published extensively in all major academic journals in economics. He has published five books and edited many more.

The Quarterly Journal of Economics is the oldest professional journal of economics in the English language. Edited at Harvard University’s Department of Economics, it covers all aspects of the field.

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Image credit: A Stiff Pull by Peter Henry Emerson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. toko kosmetik online

    in my country, Indonesia, almost all of the farmer still using the traditional farming, but i feel we are left behind from the other south east asian country in farm harvest.
    i hope we can applied a better technology so the farmer not only from the male gender but female could participate also

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