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Gender inequality? Blame it on the plough

Gender inequality? Blame it on the plough

On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough By Alberto F. Alesina, Harvard University; Paola Giuliano, UCLA; Nathan Nunn, Harvard University, NBER Working Paper http://www.nber.org/papers/w17098

Why do some societies have more gender equality than others? Why, for instance, is female participation in the labour force as low as 16.1% in Pakistan and as high as 90.5% in Burundi. Both countries are underdeveloped, so it can’t be said that economic growth is behind more women working outside the home.

Most people would put the difference down to cultural factors. That, however, is a convenient catch-all explanation that invites another question: Why did the culture develop the way it did?

For a long time, sociologists have said the answer is to be found in economics. Not in today’s economy, but far back in history, when farmers were just beginning to put the plough to work. The use of the plough led to a marked increase in productivity, but it also changed gender roles. Before the invention of the plough, shifting cultivation was the norm, which used hand-held tools such as the hoe and the digging stick.

This kind of farming is labour-intensive and it can be done intermittently, stopping and resuming when needed. This made it compatible with doing other tasks such as looking after children, a task universally performed by women. When shifting cultivation was practised, therefore, women participated in a large way in farm work.

All that changed when the plough was introduced. Using the plough required brute strength and power, not only to move it, but also to control the large animal with whose help the field was being ploughed. It also had to be used continuously rather than intermittently. With ploughing, there was also less need for weeding, an activity that could easily be done by women and children. The authors quote French historian Fernand Braudel’s description of how gender relations, culture and society were changed by the adoption of the plough in Mesopotamia between 4,000 and 6,000 BC. Braudel wrote: “Until now, women had been in charge of the fields and gardens where cereals were grown: everything had depended on their tilling the soil and tending the crop. Men had been first hunters, then herdsmen. But now men took over the plough, which they alone were allowed to use. At a stroke, it might seem that the society would move from being matriarchal to patriarchal: That there would be a shift away from the reign of the all-powerful mother goddesses...and towards the male gods and priests who were predominant in Sumer and Babylon...and was accompanied with a move towards male domination of society and its beliefs."

The authors of this research paper aimed to empirically test these theories. They used pre-industrial ethnographic data on societies that used the plough and combined it with measures of female participation in work outside the home, across ethnic groups and countries. They use the fact that certain types of crops can be adapted for the use of the plough, while others can be grown on rocky, thin or sloped soils, unsuitable for ploughing.

The study finds 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".

To check how plough use affected cultural beliefs, the authors studied second-generation immigrants in the US. These were all exposed to the same environment, but had different cultural backgrounds. They found that women from cultures that historically used the plough tend to work outside less, even in the US.

Even among these women, who faced the same labour market, institutions, and policies, the mere fact that they came from plough-using cultures led to a lower rate of female labour force participation.

Of course, other factors are important too in explaining gender inequality, such as economic development and economic progress.

I’m sure the girl child murders of Haryana and Rajasthan cannot be attributed only to the adoption of the plough by their ancestors.

But the study shows that the plough casts a long shadow over the history of gender relations.

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