Guest Post: Modern gender roles and ancient farming

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By Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. Cross posted from VoxEU

Gender inequality is an old story. This column presents new evidence to suggest it may be as old as the horse and plough. It says there is a robust negative relationship between historical plough-use and unequal gender roles today. Traditional plough-use is positively correlated with attitudes reflecting gender inequality and negatively correlated with female labour force participation, female firm ownership, and female participation in politics.

The gender division of labour varies significantly across societies. In some cultures women actively participate in employment outside of the home, while in others there is a clear specialisation of tasks along gender lines with women tending to stay at home while their husbands go out to earn the money. These differences are most clearly illustrated by the vast differences in female labour force participation, which in 2000 ranged from 16.1% in Pakistan to 90.5% in Burundi.

Many determinants of these differences have been thoroughly studied, including per capita income and the specialisation of the economy in female-friendly industries. However, even controlling for these variables there remain important time-invariant differences in gender roles.

The root cause of gender work-role differences

A number of scholars have argued that these differences can be explained by cultural values. However this leaves the questions of where these values come from. Ester Boserup (1970) in her path-breaking book Women’s Role in Economic Development argues that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally.

In particular, she identifies important differences between shifting and plough cultivation. The former, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labour intensive and women actively participate in farm work. The latter, in contrast, 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 burst of power, which are needed to either pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it.

Because of these requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women. Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding, a task typically undertaken by women and children. In addition, child-care, a task almost universally performed by women, is most compatible with activities that can be stopped and resumed easily and do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture since large animals are typically used to pull the plough.

In a recent study (Alesina et al. 2011) we test Boserup’s hypothesis. The idea is that this division of labour then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterised by plough agriculture, and a resulting gender-based division of labour, developed the belief that the natural place for women is within the home. These cultural beliefs tend to persist even if the economy moves out of agriculture, affecting the participation of women in activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, and participation in politics.

Modern outcomes and ancient farming

We test Boserup’s hypothesis by combining pre-industrial ethnographic data, reporting whether societies traditionally used plough agriculture, with contemporary measures of individuals’ views about gender roles, as well as measures of female participation in activities outside of the home. Our analysis examines variation across countries, ethnic groups, and individuals. We find a strong and robust negative relationship between historical plough-use and unequal gender roles today. Traditional plough-use is positively correlated with attitudes reflecting gender inequality and negatively correlated with female labour force participation, female firm ownership, and female participation in politics.

One difficulty in interpreting these relationships is the fact that the adoption of the plough may have been the result of pre-existing cultural values, which may persist over time. To identify the causal impact of the plough on current gender norms, we exploit variation in the extent to which ancestral locations had geo-climatic characteristics that were favourable to the cultivation of specific cereals that benefitted most from the use of the plough, which are referred to as plough-positive crops.

Using data from the FAO, we identify the geo-climatic suitability of finely defined ancestral locations for growing plough-positive cereals (wheat, barley and rye) and plough-negative cereals (sorghum and millet). We then use the relative differences in ethnic groups’ suitability for the two types of crops as instruments for ancestral plough use. The IV estimates continue to find that traditional plough use is associated with attitudes of gender inequality, as well as less female labour force participation, female firm-ownership, and female participation in politics.

Having identified the persistent impact of traditional plough-use on gender norms, we then turn to an analysis of the precise channels underlying the effects. It is possible that the persistence of culture explains the effects. But, it is also possible that culture impacts the formation of specific institutions and it is these that crystallise certain gender roles. To disentangle the impact of the plough working through institutions versus direct cultural persistence we examine second-generation immigrants living in the US. These are individuals who now live in identical institutional settings, but have different cultural backgrounds. Within this group, we continue to find that the use of the plough by their ancestors from their homeland is strongly correlated with female labour force participation.

Although our results highlight the persistence of cultural norms, they do not imply that culture does not evolve. There are many examples of very rapid change as a result of shocks. An example is change arising from large-scale warfare, when women were called to work in large numbers to fill the spaces left by men. However, our results show that there is still some persistence for certain cultural traits and that these can last for centuries.

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  1. Cedric Regula

    Well, from the looks of things around here, I’d say the average American woman could use a little more plough pulling.

    But like I always point out, I’m kind of new at this social science and political science thing, and I really have no idea how this relates to culture.

    But that reminds me. It’s final Wimbledon Week. Sharapova does NOT need any plough pulling.

    Since it was 108F here today, I decided to work on improving my tennis game thru the osmosis and wishful thinking method. So I watched the Djokovic – Tsonga match this afternoon. What a game! Tsonga is the only guy I’ve seen that may actually have a stronger forehand than DaJoka. He hung in there well, but finally sucumbed in the forth set. So the final will be Nadal Vs. Djokovic.

    To be fair, there are no American men playing tennis, so maybe they need plough pulling too.

    1. hondje

      To be fair, there are no American men playing tennis, so maybe they need plough pulling too.

      Maybe because tennis is lame.

  2. Foppe

    Pointless reductionist determinism. Sure, stuff might’ve changed a bit when ploughs came into use, but to suggest that contemporary gender stratifications are still ‘banking’ on this division of labor that meant something is just silly.
    And then look at this:

    It is possible that the persistence of culture explains the effects. But, it is also possible that culture impacts the formation of specific institutions and it is these that crystallise certain gender roles.

    Why on earth are people so attracted to single cause causal theories? They’re so unlikely it’s not even funny.
    The only kinds of social scientists who don’t stumble on useful models and explanations by accident are old-school cultural anthropologists and people who practice some form of (Bruno Latour’s) ANT, which is basically a successful attempt to bring back that methodology into sociology. The rest might find something useful, but it’s more often the stuff they can’t explain than the stuff they “can”.

    1. Valissa

      Agreed, and well said. Saved me the bother of a similar comment.

      We live in a complex and ambiguous world, but there is no shortage of people willing to oversimplify reality so they can have the illusion they understand the way things are.

      I spent a good 18 months studying the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer a few years back. Every book and article I read was superior (in the sense of informative and thoughtful) to this vapid article.

        1. Valissa

          It’s a complex subject and academics continue to argue with each other about about what caused what… when, how and why. I can recommend some books to start and suggest getting a feel for the multi-threaded process of ‘change’ rather than getting caught up in the academic arguments (not sure how useful most of the academic papers I read were).

          Have you read Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond? That’s a really great place to start. The early chapters odeal with the transition to farming (I went to some of the author’s references to get more info) and later ones to later changes in civilization. Chapter 14 of this book is the famous/classic “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy, the evolution of government and religion.” As with all short overviews it’s a bit simplistic, but smartly done.

          If you want a very quick and dirty intro (only 50 pages)… Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, by Colin Tudge.

          Another book you might find interesting is, though on a sligtly different track… The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, by Andrew Bard Schmookler.

          1. Valissa

            One more book rec… The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan.

          2. Foppe

            Mind you, Diamond’s book is nearly worthless in his discussion of more recent history.

          3. Valissa

            Foppe, I’ve found that to pretty much be true of all of the Long Histories I’ve read. It’s true of the Fagan book I just recommended too.

  3. Max424

    Neither men nor women will be doing much ploughing on the farms that straddle large stretches of the Missouri, anytime soon. You seen the flooding? It’s bad.

    Half of Nebraska looks like it’s underwater — when viewed from high above. In fact, from up there, the nuclear power plant at Ft. Calhoun looks like tiny part of a small sub-section of a giant rice paddy.

    On-topic note: Women do a vast majority of the rice paddy work around the world. Hard labor, rice paddy work. It’s not ploughing, but it is backbreaking, especially so in the years when your toting a kid in rucksack.

  4. bob

    “Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is the fact that when the plough is used, there is less need for weeding”

    There is a problem with this point. Plows produce furrows, and furrows increase the surface area of the land. More surface area equals more space for weeds to grow.

    Some modern agriculture is realizing this and now aiming for completely flat fields, no furrows.

    1. youniquelikeme

      Thank you…

      It is well known now that it is the plowing that plows in the seeds and makes for more weeds. The best way to seed is just to make a hole and seed. “Modern” farming methods still use burning of stubble and plowing, which means the ground has to be fertilized … EVEN THOUGH IT IS PROVEN to hurt the soil. ( I was raised on a farm and I am an organic gardener)

      Farmers like the extra work, obviously and to pay for the expensive equipment and fertilizers. Perhaps we could liken it to the man and his John Deere mower. It is all for show, because when they use chemicals and insect repellent, it surely isn’t to bring a healthy, nutricious product to market.

      Women and children weeded and did all the farm chores just as today a man does 8 hours of work and then wants to rest as they worked, stay at home Mom didn’t. The gender roles on the farm were more about chattel then choice and that upper body strength was used for more then plowing. That is as likely a factor than who will plow and gender work role differences, as they can still apply today.

  5. tomk

    The assumption being that working for money outside the home is somehow better than the childcare, cleaning, cooking, maintenance, and other uncompensated work of home. The idea that “labour force participation, firm ownership, and participation in politics” are somehow superior to being at home with the kids and one’s tasks is not clear to me. That’s the kind of thinking that got us rat racing to keep up an “economy” instead of living our lives.

  6. Susan M

    This is right up there with all of the reductionist theories in neuro-science about gender roles as a function of hormones. What about warfare? If whomever is in power wants to stay in power they would need men to fight the wars wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they therefore put men in charge of all of the most important institutions in society, including the capital?

    1. Cedric Regula

      Not necessarily. Here’s a couple of the fiestier ladies in the wiki “Timeline of women in medieval warfare”.

      “625: Hind al-Hudud is among fifteen women accompanying troops in a battle near Medina, singing songs to inspire warriors. She exults over the body of the man who killed her father, chews his liver, and makes jewellery from his skin and nails.[4]”

      “Early 11th century: Freydís Eiríksdóttir, a Viking woman, sails to Vinland with Thorfinn Karlsefni. When she faced hostile natives while pregnant, she exposed her breasts and beat her chest with a sword. This caused the natives to run away.[26]”

  7. lambert strether

    I think some of the commenters are confusing an attempt to control variables to observe an effect with advocacy single-cause theories.

    For myself, I don’t have any difficulty in reading plough vs. non-plough agriculture as one among many causes leading to gender stratification/differentiation. For me, the key sentence comes toward the end:

    [O]ur results show that there is still some persistence for certain cultural traits and that these can last for centuries…

    Once again, not a single cause. For pity’s sake. IIRC, a smaller example of this is that styles of nodding one’s head for “yes” and “no” form a sort of isobar on the Southern European map that corresponds to the border of the Ottoman Empire — gone for some centuries….

    1. Foppe

      First of all, they’re the ones who talk about “root causes”, not me. ;)
      Anyway, how do “cultural traits” persist except through institutionalization? There is no such mechanism as “the persistence of culture”. Yet this is the null hypothesis they contrast to the mildly-insightful (in a sociology-101 kind of way) their alternative hypothesis (which is pretty much tautologically true).
      Of course cultural traits can persist, but the thing to do is not to note that they somehow, magically do, but to look into why they do, how they are institutionalized, (and then why that institution persists), etc. Yet they do not do anything of the sort. All they do (in their paper) is some number crunching on second-gen immigrants to the US, and then attributing the findings to historical plough use. That is all.

      1. lambert strether

        Yes, that’s a subhead for the topic under discussion. Can you find me a declarative sentence where the authors make that assertion? The closest I can come is “strongly correlated”….

  8. aeolius

    Our two major “scheduled castes”, Women and “Afro-Americans”
    are grounded on learned discrimination by white men. So we have the major groups having their own departments of Womans and Black Studies. And by necessity both scheduled classes are locked into a view of human behavior as totally learned-which is needed to see Affirmative Action as a practical solution.
    Often, these departments have a orthodox belief system so so that PHD theses must toe the party line.So whatever the pseudo-scientific veneer of a piece of research, since the basic assumptions cannot be questioned it is not science.
    There are now hundreds,probably thousands of biological dimorphic differences, large and small which strongly suggest different evolutionary pressures and paths. This goes back deep into the hominid line. Pity they are anathema to most depts of woman’s studies
    For some empirical evidence of racial differences in work situations see

  9. Lady Bug

    Interesting. I was not raised on a farm, rather a Midwestern ‘burb, but I’ve been involved with horses for most of my life. Later this summer I am taking an extending course on how to drive draft horses for agricultural work. Oh, I should tell you that I am a middle aged woman. Looking forward to righting the gender imbalance when it comes to driving a team in the fields.

  10. eric smith

    I agree- this is the weakest thing i’ve seen on this site. But it strikes a chord with me because this is a critical topic which is a big part of our current dysfuctionality and should be explored in future posts.

    Firstly, while I am an idiot on this subject I would say that the shift from hunter gather to agriculture resulted in a very organic switch from the hunters (men) “manning” the animal driven plows, a very natural and obvious solution as the former hunters knew more about these beasts and with higher muscle body content could handle with greater skill. Duh. The larger division of the male/linear thinking/ hunting success/ warfare/political leadership/economic/industry vs. female/complex relational thinking/family/control of domicile/human dynamics is a huge subject and is perhaps more than we are capable of intellectually understanding.

    But my real point is that the more I learn the more I realize how little we know of the totality of things and although we DO know a good deal we can’t seem to process and utilize our “data base’ very effectively at all. The resulting road noise and confusion is deafening and the efficiency rate of our collective thinking is certainly in the single digits on a percentage basis.

    In conclusion gender and more importantly, sex, is a central if not very near all encompassing subject which deserves much more sophisticated, honest, rigorous and open analysis. What I see so far is either childish in its understanding of the reality of this phenomenon or ridiculously obtuse.

  11. kevinearick

    God’s Law: The Eye in the Sky

    The Internet is a symptom, an outcome of integral thinking. The most frequent mistake kids make, coming out of the derivatives box, is not casting aside all the bred-in false assumptions. Wealth is not a function of some great idea or plan, although they can be useful to get a start. Wealth is a function of exploration at the event horizon, trimming the sail, in anticipation of that which others cannot foretell. It’s like coming out of a life in the cave and training your eyes to filter the sun in a way that reveals its object. Most employ that gift to take moles from cave to cave.

    Everything after that is misdirection, to enslave children from birth, to the process. God’s law is the opposite. Give everything you can to the kids, and expect nothing in return, to distill an intelligent feedback loop, to the benefit of all, Democracy.

    The church, and every other form of government, headed by Caesar, seeks to GRANT control, false power, to the weaker party, usually the female, due to physical limitations, but watch out. The Old Lady’s job is to coddle the children AFTER the old man kicks them between the shoulder blades, off a hill, specifically built for the occasion.

    Caesar is extremely reluctant to f*** with the old man directly, because the old man is eventually going to drop the entire enterprise system right over the cliff. That’s History, the limit of what Caesar really knows. What the old man is anticipating is that the kids will have their bridge, the strait, ready to go, which appears to be an X on solid ground, because the inverted pyramid appears to have withstood the test of time. Relativity, time, is what you make of it.

    You will notice that there is nothing in the standard marriage contract about government. It is a contract between you, your spouse, and God (glasses), to raise God’s children under the example of accepting social responsibility in return for the privilege of individual freedom, in a feedback loop. All powers not specifically granted to government by the people… Children are aliens, not stupid. Only Caesar seeks to breed stupidity, to the end of control, and the difference in participation is not difficult to distinguish.

    Intelligent kids, by nature, are integral critters, and they will creep out to the edge of the cliff every time you turn your back. The old man waits until they get to the edge, thinking they have fooled him, when he gives them a swift kick in the back. When they are children, the cliff is a bank, with relativity, gravity, doing all the work. Eventually, the intelligent kids build a bridge for the occasion, which the old man “can’t” see. Those kids graduate. In Caesar’s world, the old man’s behavior is cruel and unusual behavior, and outlawed accordingly.

    You have been given an eye in the sky, above Caesar, in anticipation of this occasion, a demographic crash. How you employ it is up to you. It’s a tool. Caesar will seek to turn it into a cave as quickly as possible, by all means. Encourage children to be independent from birth, in a small business built for the occasion, and everything else will take care of itself.

    If you think you can do a better job than the old man, go out in the real world and do it. Don’t make some p**** remark on the Internet while you’re standing on an X built for the occasion. A dead body in a pool for 3 days … There is no lack of work. There is only a relative lack of parents, capable and willing to do the job in the face of Caesar’s tsunami. Architects travel in both directions, simultaneously, at all times, building the looking glass, which may be moved at will.

    The coddling phase is over.

    Happy Independence Day

  12. rps

    The three authors(Harvard, Harvard, UCLA) article (ummmmm…be polite) based on pseudo-socio-economic research of perceived gender roles of past/present agrarian societies and the implications on current societal gender economic trends funded by NBER is as contrived and factually based as Reality Shows. A research paper with embedded selective parameters and noticeable narrow constraints is dubious as it calls into question the authors motivations and determined outcomes. First oversight of this -cough- research is they overlooked that women and children were/are considered “property” in many past/present societies. Secondly, the patriarchal societal systems and its male dominant hierarchy must be examined prior to any conclusions of gender roles and economies. Third, they neglect the pastoral societies and whether there was gender based division of work and influences upon economics. Fourth, Nomad tribes and gender dictates and division of labor also ignored. Last, previous archaeological research is “dated” and questionable due to the archaeologist cultural biases and societal based dictates of gender-roles. In fact, archaeological theories and conclusions are being re-examined due to the recognition of past gender biases, cultural influences, and indoctrinated societal belief constructs.

    Dr.Riane Eisler, Author of The Chalice & The Blade (1987) offers a compelling work as she re-examines past/present archaeological theories and conclusions of societies and their gender-based cultural dichotomies and influences. Other books such as Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth and the Politics of the Body, and The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics address the economic issues that Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn either neglect or chosen to studiously ignore. Eisler’s website is extraordinary.

  13. Herman Sniffles

    Sounds like a valid theory to me. And how about near eastern nomads? They have a saying that “Shame enters the family with the plow.” And look how they treat their women. Why do people call these sorts of ideas “single-cause theories”? Does the author even suggest that this is the ONLY factor involved? Nope. The same sort of thing may have happened during the most recent ice age as human groups in Europe shifted from hunting & gathering to hunting large mammals like reindeer as nomads. In hunter – gatherer groups women produce the lions share of the available calories (I think it’s about 70%)through their gathering activities. The men bring in a little meat from hunting, and occasionally make a big kill. But studies have shown that most of their time is spent sitting around telling stories about past successes. In nomadic groups who hunt large animals, the women’s role in food production shrinks to almost nothing (hard to spend much time gathering or doing primitive ag if you’re chasing your men around who are chasing the reindeer around). This is all wonderful stuff and well worth studying. The math-minded imbecils who don’t like it are the same types who brought us modern financial theory. Go figure.

  14. Herman Sniffles

    And the obvious extension of this article is that the current interest in gay marriage is the result of no-till agriculture and intensive herbicide use.

  15. jcb

    The AG&N study tends to confirm Boserup’s theory about gender distinctions in agricultural societies. The newer part tries to apply her theory to immigrant populations as a part of their cultural inheritance: “modern” gender roles and “ancient” farming. The difficulty with this type of broadcast study of quantitative variables is its insensitivity to culture, which usually emerges as an inferred explanation for national, racial, or regional similarities or differences.

    It’s puzzling that the AG&N study didn’t include rice-cultivating populations. Rice is the most widely consumed crop globally. It does utilize draft animals and ploughs (water buffalo) but it also features considerable labor by women in the setting of rice plants and at the harvest. As a further benefit to studying gender roles in second-generation U.S. immigrant populations, the southern Chinese population (that grows rice) is also well dispersed.

    I agree that certain types of work, agricultural or not, have in the past lent themselves to gender specificity. But to be more precise — and less uni-causal — you would need to look at the particular agricultural tasks involved in the home culture and the particular kinds of work available in the immigrant culture. Based on my unscientific experience of early Chinese immigrant populations in the U.S., it was common for women to work in restaurants and laundries.

    Immigrant populations’ relationship to their home cultures differ. For example, the unusually high proportion of prostitutes in any first-generation immigrant population says nothing about the sexual mores of the home country. It speaks to the early demographic disproportion of males, and the absence of other livelihoods for women.

  16. joel3000

    The plow allows the tilling of of marginal soils. It allows humans to cultivate new lands. The domestication of animals to pull the plow is another big step forward in human history.

    Raising kids all day by yourself in a suburban home is not a day-to-day rewarding activity. It’s a grind. You cannot compare it to the life of a woman in charge of her children in a tribal environment where labor and childcare responsibilities are shared.

    The presumption that the male roles were preferred to the female’s housekeeping and child rearing roles in the plow society is just that: a presumption.

    Less known: once the guys started to get plows, no respectable woman would marry a guy who didn’t have one.

  17. Jeff

    What’s overlooked here is the inequality of the human versus the draft animal. Humans can pull plows and they
    similar work in China pulling canal boats up the
    Yellow River with ropes from the shore.

    Woman are stronger than men, pound for pound, but of
    course they have fewer pounds and so they lose out
    when it comes to wrangling animals by brute force.

    As a manager in a retail store I always made sure to
    help assure gender equality. I had the women do all the
    heavy lifting and work that required strength. I had the men do all the thinking and interactions with customers.
    Women were not happy with this arrangement in spite
    of my efforts at equalization of gender roles.

  18. demented chimp

    Shifting cultivation has a large male bias for the tree cutting work which is male only work.
    Hunting and herding buffalo etc another large element of shifting cultivation lifestyles is also a male only area this tended to take people away from the home.
    Ploughing is a small element of the home bias of female work loads.
    If anything men were less at home as shifting cultivators than they are as agrarians.

  19. Demented Chimp

    Agrarian societies allowed for larger food surpluses, more specialisation and social stratification. Cultures became more complex and developed specials rules for women because they had the excess labour to do so.

    Shifting cultivators have very gender specific roles but no social stratification and work load is evenly balanced between male and female. There are no surpluses to allow for women to be kept at home and controlled for example.

  20. Elliot

    Hilarious assumption that women cannot plough with horses. Control of horses on such a detailed task as plowing does NOT require brute strength, but skill and intuition. But then, I grew up with horses and farmwork, not scrivening in an ivory tower.
    I’m a small woman (5’2) and can easily control a stallion, let alone a gelded work horse, as well as use a tractor to plow. Both tasks require learning, attention to detail, and the ability to flex with the situation.

    I have noticed through my life, working in generally male-dominant fields (tiny unintentional pun.. ;) …. men want the fun toys for themselves, and with the whole patriotic (I mean patriarchal) system, they take what they want if they can. So I imagine that plowing with the horse, which is EASIER than dragging a plow yourself, for god’s sake, if it was taken in the beginning as a male thing, was on that level.

    Too, that whole brute force needed for controlling animals is so much booshwa; along the same line as you have to beat your dog/child/wife.

    Sad to think folks believing this kind of thing direct our economy.

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