Did Gender Inequality Start With the Plow?

From a pair of Harvard economists, Alberto Alesina and Nathan Nunn, and a UCLA business school professor, Paola Giuliano, comes this working paper (Abstract here and below; full version here) that tests the hypothesis that current gender role differences can be traced to shifting methods of agriculture, particularly the introduction of the plow, which required significant upper body strength, grip strength, and burst of power that favored men over women.

This paper seeks to better understand the historical origins of current differences in norms and beliefs about 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 and persistence of gender norms. We find that, consistent with existing hypotheses, the descendants of societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture, today have lower rates of female participation in the workplace, in politics, and in entrepreneurial activities, as well as a greater prevalence of attitudes favoring gender inequality. We identify the causal impact of traditional plough use by exploiting variation in the historical geo-climatic suitability of the environment for growing crops that differentially benefited from the adoption of the plough. Our IV estimates, based on this variation, support the findings from OLS. To isolate the importance of cultural transmission as a mechanism, we examine female labor force participation of second-generation immigrants living within the US.

A couple highlights:

  • 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 labor force participation, female firm ownership, and female participation in politics.
  • We find that women from cultures that historically used the plough have lower rates of labor force participation in the US. This provides evidence that part of the importance of the plough arises through its impact on internal beliefs and values.

Joshua Northey

Umm animals have gender role differences and they don't use plows...

I would think the strength differential, aggression differential, and libido differential between men and women is more than enough to explain 75% of the important observed differences in traditional genders roles.

Really plow use?!? This seems like the Sokal hoax.


Interesting, but.... isn't the case the the introduction of plow technology itself was already gender biased (requiring upper body strength, etc. as the study cited)?

So this paper is telling me that plows have a gender bias, not the origin of the gender bias comes from the plow itself, as if inventing a plow was somehow exogenous and void influence from human social relations. Gender inequality didn't start with the plow, but it certainly was reflected in its technological development.


I agree. Their treatment of endogeneity isn't very convincing.

caveat bettor

I'm suspecting that Mr. Philips has yet to parent one child of each gender for a few years.

Matthew Philips

This is true, though I'm not sure what my not having children has to do with the roots of gender inequality in society.


Well, it seems as if the blow does enhance existing social gender differences.

But as research gets us no closer to the underlying causes of social gender differences. My suspicion is that it has something to do with childbearing.


As usual, the first few commenters miss the point. The study did not say that all gender differences are a result of the plow, it says that societies that make more use of the plow have a tendency towards more separate (and unequal) gender roles. And I don’t see that the causality could run the other way, people adopt plow technology because of the land they live on, the crops they have available, and the animals they have domesticated.

The paper presents an interesting theory, though I’m not sure it rules out the null hypothesis yet. At it is important to remember that there are still many other dimensions to gender differences.

Joshua Northey

"current gender role differences can be traced to shifting methods of agriculture"

That is a direct quote from the intro to the piece.

As for the more specific information in the data, it looks like any number of other factors might be what is really driving things. The "utilize plow" sample includes almost the entire population base of the world except sub-Saharan Africa, which is frankly not very representative of the world as a whole in a huge variety of ways.

A few simple hypotheses:

A1 Surplus leads to more deeply entrenched gender roles (or rather scarcity and poverty break down social structures and necessitates the adoption of more pragmatic view towards problem solving (including bending gender roles)).
p1 Plow agriculture correlates strongly with areas of better agricultural resources.
p2 The areas are more productive, more efficient agriculture leads to surplus.
C The data as presented.

A2 Bantu cultures have different gender roles.
C The data as presented.

A3 Countries which were colonized as part of the 1825 Berlin Conference has different gender roles
C The data as presented.

and so on...

Distinguishing between "plow using" and non-plow using cultures just doesn't seem valuable to me. They are too ubiquitous and too tangled up with other historical factors. On top of that gender differences are not something we really lack explanations for, the reasons for them are pretty clear.



"The “utilize plow” sample includes almost the entire population base of the world except sub-Saharan Africa..."

Yet a bit of thought suggests that's far from true, with many cultures not using the plow, or even doing much agriculture. Off the top of my head, I'd suggest most of the Plains Indians, the Inuit, the Mongols.

Then consider subcultures: to a Roman citizen or European upper class (and probably many others), plowing was something done by slaves & serfs. Even in the American West, we have cultural clashes (at least in film) between ranchers and sodbusters. So why would the non-plowing subculture adopt the gender stereotypes of the underclass?

Joshua Northey

Did you look at the data in the article? They weren't making those kind of distinctions.


Yes, I looked at the data in the article (though some of the legends on their maps are unreadable). That's part of what I'm asking: is the data they're using really relevant to their conclusion, or is their conclusion being forced by an incomplete/inaccurate dataset?

Miley Cyrax

Are you espousing the notion that men are, on average, stronger than women? This is blasphesmy, the belief in gender differences when it comes to average traits--what next you misogynist? Are you going to tell me that men are on average 10% taller and 15% heavier?


Since those golden days, and the quartz crisis/revolution, the US has all but stopped making BMW Watches in any mass amount. While there are a number of small US watch brands, few do anything with movements. RGM, based in one of the watch hotspots of the US, made their first movement (the caliber 801) a few years ago. They have since followed up with Cheap Rolex Watches the Pennsylvania Tourbillon. The movement is manually wound with a slow beat, large diameter tourbillon opposite an off-centered watch dial. The face of the Cheap Omega Watches is all about appreciating the movement - with its German silver engraved dial and exposed mechanics. A traditional movement throughout, it has a unique American flavor and design.

A Cam

It's unfortunate that they didn't separate out the proportion of the population that belongs to each religion, but rather the proportion of the pop that belongs to one of the 5 religions. It would have been interesting to see if the plough correlation holds up on a religion by religion basis. Also - on table 7, columns 6 and 12 appear to be missing. Would be interesting to see those numbers...

Craig Hullinger

Hunter Gatherer societies separate men and women into separate rolls, with men usually hunting and women usually gathering.

Agriculture is more mixed, with some very separate rolls, and some very mixed.



While I accept that agriculture probably increased gender role differentiation, such roles predate agriculture being nearly universal in hunter-gather societies. See http://social-shadow.tripod.com/family.html They have a causation problem if they are trying to claim that agriculture is the main cause of gender role differentiation.


I wanted to balance out the gender inequality in my relationship with my future wife and told her to plow the backyard! She said "no!" saying she would rather I bankroll her and that the plow would make her ass look big. I told her I would get a waterbuffalo instead of an ass and she still wouldn't do it! Now she won't even talk to me! Wasn;t it soemthing I said?;);)

Harald K

An interesting statement in this paper is that whether a woman's mother or mother in law came from a plow-culture, matters more than the fathers or fathers in law. In other words, women are more responsible for transmitting (traditional) gender roles than men.

chris gauthier

Under the highlights in the first bullet point, isn't the robust relationship that they find positive not negative? Isn't historical plow use positively correlated with unequal gender roles today in that the existence of the independent variable increases the likelihood of the dependent variable? Historical plow-use is positively related to unequal gender roles today? In other words, the structure of the first statement and the second statement contradict. Perhaps I am just confused.