SOLUTION: UCSD On the Origins of Gender Roles Women and The Plough Paper Discussion

Vol. 128
May 2013
Issue 2
Alberto Alesina
Paola Giuliano
Nathan Nunn
The study examines the historical origins of existing cross-cultural differences in beliefs and values regarding the appropriate role of women in society.
We test the hypothesis that traditional agricultural practices influenced the
historical gender division of labor and the evolution of gender norms. We find
that, consistent with existing hypotheses, the descendants of societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture today have less equal gender norms, measured using reported gender-role attitudes and female participation in the
workplace, politics, and entrepreneurial activities. Our results hold looking
across countries, across districts within countries, and across ethnicities
within districts. To test for the importance of cultural persistence, we examine
the children of immigrants living in Europe and the United States. We find that
even among these individuals, all born and raised in the same country, those
with a heritage of traditional plough use exhibit less equal beliefs about gender
roles today. JEL Codes: D03, J16, N30.
* We thank Larry Katz, Elhanan Helpman, and five anonymous referees for
comments that substantially improved the paper. We also thank Samuel Bowles,
David Clingingsmith, Matthias Doepke, Esther Duflo, Raquel Fernandez, Nicole
Fortin, Oded Galor, Claudia Goldin, Pauline Grosjean, Judith Hellerstein, Vivian
Hoffman, Edward Miguel, Rohini Pande, Louis Putterman, John Wallis, as well
as participants at various conferences and seminars. We also thank Eva Ng,
Matthias Baeuml, Ellora Derenoncourt, Lauren Morris, and Benjamin Schoefer
for excellent research assistance. Paola Giuliano gratefully acknowledges support
from the UCLA Senate and thanks the Russell Sage Foundation for its wonderful
! The Author(s) 2013. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of President and
Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals
The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2013), 469–530. doi:10.1093/qje/qjt005.
Advance Access publication on February 19, 2013.
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This study examines an important deeply held belief that
varies widely across societies: the appropriate or natural role of
women in society. In some societies, the dominant belief is that
women should be allowed to participate freely, and equally to
males, in employment outside the home. In others, there is the
very different view that the appropriate place for women is within
the home, and they are discouraged from participating in activities outside the domestic sphere. These differences can be most
clearly seen in surveys that report attitudes about gender roles.
For example, the proportion of respondents in the World Values
Survey that ‘‘agree’’ with the statement that ‘‘when jobs are
scarce, men should have more right to a job than women’’
varies widely across countries, ranging from 3.6% (in Iceland)
to 99.6% (in Egypt).1
Our interest is in explaining the origins of these cultural
differences. Specifically, we test the hypothesis, put forth by
Ester Boserup (1970), that differences in gender roles have
their origins in the form of agriculture traditionally practiced in
the pre-industrial period. Boserup identifies important differences between shifting cultivation and plough cultivation.
Shifting cultivation is labor intensive and uses handheld tools
like the hoe and the digging stick. Plough cultivation, by contrast,
is much 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. Because of these requirements, when
plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage in farming relative to women.
Given the important role of soil preparation in agriculture,
which accounts for about one-third of the total time spent in
agricultural tasks, societies that traditionally practiced plough
agriculture—rather than shifting cultivation—developed a specialization of production along gender lines. Men tended to work
outside the home in the fields, while women specialized in
1. The figures are based on the 4th wave of the World Values Survey, which
includes information from 62 countries surveyed between 1999 and 2004. Objective
outcomes, like female labor force participation (FLFP), also exhibit significant variation (Antecol 2000; Fortin 2005; Fernandez 2007; Fernandez and Fogli 2009). In
2000, the FLFP rate ranged from 16.1% (Pakistan) to 90.5% (Burundi).
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activities within the home. This division of labor then generated
norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies
characterized by plough agriculture, and the resulting genderbased division of labor, 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 the
home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, or participation in politics.
To test Boserup’s hypothesis, we combine pre-industrial
ethnographic data, reporting whether societies traditionally
practiced plough agriculture, with contemporary measures of individuals’ views about gender roles, as well as measures of female
participation in activities outside the home. Our analysis examines variation across countries, ethnic groups, and individuals.
Consistent with Boserup’s hypothesis, we find a strong and
robust positive 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 labor force participation, female
firm ownership, and female participation in politics.2
Although these findings support Boserup’s hypothesis, they
are also consistent with other interpretations. For example, we
would observe the same relationships if societies with attitudes
favoring gender inequality were more likely to adopt the plough
historically, and these attitudes persist today. To better understand whether traditional plough use has a causal impact on subsequent cultural norms, we control for an exhaustive set of
observable characteristics.
In our baseline set of covariates, we include controls for a
number of historical characteristics of ethnic groups, such as
the suitability of their environment for agriculture, whether
they had domesticated animals, the extent to which they lived
in tropical climates, their level of political development, and
their level of economic development. We also flexibly control for
current country-level per capita GDP. We show that the results
2. Our analysis is concerned with a very specific aspect of gender equality:
whether it is believed to be appropriate for women to work outside the home as it
is for men. There are many other gender differences that contribute to gender inequality more broadly defined. However, throughout the paper when we refer to
gender equality (or inequality), we are referring specifically to gender differences in
employment outside the home.
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are robust to controlling for additional historical characteristics
of ethnic groups and contemporary characteristics of countries
that are potentially correlated with traditional plough use and
beliefs about gender roles today.
Motivated by the possibility that our cross-national results
may be biased by other characteristics of countries, we move to a
more micro-level analysis, examining cross-individual variation
in female labor force participation and beliefs about gender equality. With this strategy, we are able to restrict the analysis to
variation within countries and even variation within districts
within countries. We find similar impacts when we examine
this finer variation.
We then turn to an analysis of the importance of ancestral
differences in specific geo-climatic characteristics that impacted
what types of crops could be cultivated in the historical locations.
This analysis is motivated by Pryor (1985), who argues that the
benefit of using the plough differed depending on the types of
crops cultivated. The plough is more beneficial for crops that require large tracts of land to be prepared in a short period of time
(e.g., due to multiple-cropping), and that can be grown only in
soils that are not shallow, not sloped, and not rocky.3 These
crops, which Pryor refers to as ‘‘plough-positive’’, include teff,
wheat, barley, rye, and wet rice. These can be contrasted to
‘‘plough-negative’’ crops, such as maize, sorghum, millet, and
various types of root and tree crops, which require less land to
be prepared over a longer period of time, and/or can be cultivated
on thin, sloped, or rocky soils, where using the plough is difficult.
Unlike plough-positive crops, plough-negative crops benefit much
less from the adoption of the plough.
Using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO), we identify the geo-climatic suitability of finely defined
locations for growing plough-positive cereals (wheat, barley,
and rye) and plough-negative cereals (sorghum, foxtail millet,
and pearl millet). Except for their benefit from plough use, the
two sets of cereals are otherwise similar. Both have been cultivated in the Eastern Hemisphere since the Neolithic revolution;
3. For a recent study documenting the link between soil type and plough use in
modern India, see Carranza (2010). In particular, she shows that in contemporary
India, plough technology is more likely to be adopted with deep loamy soils rather
than shallow clay soils, and that it is associated with less participation of women in
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require similar preparations for consumption, all being used for
flour, porridge, bread, or in beverages; and produce similar yields
and therefore are able to support similar population densities.
We show that, consistent with Pryor (1985), the suitability of
a location for cultivating plough-positive vs. plough-negative
crops predicts whether the plough was adopted. We also show
that they predict gender norms today. Finally, we use ethnic
groups’ geo-climatic conditions for growing plough-positive and
plough-negative cereals as instruments for historical plough use.
Motivated by concerns that our instruments may be correlated
with other geographic characteristics, we check that the estimates are robust to flexibly controlling for geographic covariates,
including overall agricultural suitability, temperature, precipitation, soil depth, and slope. We find that the IV procedure generates estimates that are consistent with the OLS estimates.
Our analysis then turns to underlying mechanisms. It is possible that the long-term impact of the plough reflects persistent
cultural beliefs. However, it is also possible that part of the
long-term impact arises because historical plough use promoted
the development of institutions, policies, and markets that are
less conducive to the participation of women in activities outside
the home. To distinguish these two channels, we exploit the fact
that cultural norms and beliefs—unlike institutions, policies, and
markets—are internal to the individual. Therefore, when individuals move, their beliefs and values move with them, but their
external environment remains behind. Exploiting this fact, we
examine variation in cultural heritage among children of immigrants living in either the United States or Europe. All individuals born and raised abroad have been exposed to the same
institutions and markets. In effect, the analysis holds external
factors constant, while examining variation in individuals’ internal beliefs and values. We find that individuals from cultures
that historically used the plough have less equal gender norms
and that women from cultures that used the plough participate
less in the workforce. These results provide evidence that part of
the importance of the plough arises through its impact on internal beliefs and values.
Our findings contribute to a deeper understanding of the origins of cultural norms and beliefs. Studies have documented the
continuity of cultural norms over remarkably long periods of time
(e.g., Voigtlander and Voth 2012). Others show that historical
factors influence the evolution of culture over time by affecting
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the relative costs and benefits of different cultural traits. Guiso et
al. (2008) provide evidence that the formation of medieval communes had a long-term impact on the level of social capital within
Northern Italy. Similarly, Becker et al. (2010) and Grosjean
(2011b) provide evidence of historical state boundaries having
lasting cultural impacts. Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) show
that Africa’s slave trade generated a culture of distrust that continues to persist today. Nisbett and Cohen (1996) and Grosjean
(2011a) show that the culture of honor in the US South has its
origins in a tradition of herding among the Scots-Irish. The findings of our paper add to this line of enquiry by providing additional evidence that shows that historical factors—namely,
differences in traditional farming practices—have shaped the
evolution of norms and beliefs about the appropriate role of
women in society.
Our focus on a historical determinant of gender roles is not
meant to imply that other short-run factors are unimportant. A
number of existing studies have shown the importance of determinants like economic development, medical improvements,
technological change, and the production structure of the economy (e.g., Goldin 2006; Ross 2008; Albanesi and Olivetti 2007;
2009; Doepke and Tertilt 2009; Iversen and Rosenbluth 2010).
As we show, accounting for these important factors, there remains a strong persistent impact of traditional plough use on
gender norms today.
The paper is organized as follows. We begin, in Section II, by
describing the conceptual framework underlying the hypothesis
tested in the paper. Section III then documents that in societies
that traditionally used plough agriculture, women did in fact participate less in farmwork and other activities outside domestic
sphere. In Section IV, we then explain the procedure used to
link traditional plough use, which is measured at the ethnicity
level, to contemporary data on gender norms and female participation outside the home. Sections V and VI report OLS estimates
of the relationship between traditional plough use and gender
outcomes today, examining variation across individuals and
countries. Section VII turns to the issue of causality, reporting
OLS estimates that control for an extensive set of observable
characteristics, as well as the IV estimates. In Section VIII, we
then turn to mechanisms, using the children of immigrants in the
United States and Europe to test for cultural transmission as a
potential channel. Section IX offers concluding thoughts.
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The possibility that modern gender roles have their origins in
the form of agriculture practiced traditionally has long been
recognized. Baumann’s (1928) early study examined the relationship between matriarchy and the use of the hoe in Africa. Ester
Boserup (1970) further developed the observation, identifying important differences between shifting cultivation and plough cultivation. Unlike shifting cultivation, which is labor intensive and
uses handheld tools like the hoe and digging stick, plough agriculture requires significant upper body strength, needed to either
pull the plough or control the animal that pulls it. Because of
these physical requirements, when plough agriculture is practiced, men have an advantage relative to women. This advantage
is also reinforced by 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 that do not put children in
danger; characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture,
but not for plough agriculture, especially when animals are
used to pull the plough.
Due to the importance of soil preparation, societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture—rather than shifting hoe
cultivation—tended to develop a specialization of production
along gender lines. Men tended to work outside the home in the
fields, while women specialized in activities within the home.
This division of labor then generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society. Societies characterized by plough
agriculture, and the resulting gender-based division of labor, developed a cultural belief that the natural place for women is
within the home.
We view cultural beliefs as decision-making heuristics or
‘‘rules-of-thumb’’ that are employed in uncertain or complex environments. Using theoretical models, Boyd and Richerson (1985)
show that if information acquisition is either costly or imperfect,
it can be optimal for individuals to develop heuristics or
rules-of-thumb in decision making. By relying on general beliefs
about the right thing to do in different situations, individuals may
not behave in a manner that is precisely optimal in every instance, but they save on the costs of obtaining the information
necessary to always behave optimally. It is increasingly
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understood that many important aspects of human behavior are
guided by decision-making heuristics, which manifest themselves
as values, beliefs, or gut feelings about the appropriate action in
certain situations (Gigerenzer 2007; Kahneman 2011). In practice, these heuristics often take the form of deeply held traditional
values or religious beliefs.
In standard models of cultural evolution (e.g., Boyd and
Richerson 1985), the distribution of cultural beliefs in the population evolves through a natural-selection-like process determined by relative payoffs. Within this framework, Boserup’s
hypothesis suggests that in societies that engaged in plough agriculture, cultural beliefs about gender inequality were relatively
beneficial. Therefore, these norms may have evolved in
plough-agriculture societies but not hoe-agriculture societies.
Because of the persistent nature of cultural beliefs, norms of
gender inequality may persist even after the economy moves
out of agriculture or industrializes, affecting the participation of
women in activities performed outside the home, such as market
employment, entrepreneurship, or participation i …
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