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Historical Determinants of Gender Inequality


Chandan Kumar Jha, Sudipta Sarangi

Although women are disadvantaged in different walks of life everywhere, they enjoy much better status in some societies than others. Perception regarding women’s rights and abilities vary starkly across countries. For instance, while only 1.8% and 5.2% of respondents of the World Values Survey[1] agree with the statements that “men make better political leaders than women do” and “men should have more right to a job than women in times of scarcity” in Iceland, the corresponding numbers are 89.4% and 83% for Egypt. The averages from over 130,000 responses from 83 countries for the two statements are 36.1% and 32.4%, respectively.

What explains such a stark variation in gender norms that determine women’s socio-economic status?[2] Some scholars have proposed that historical agricultural practices have played a crucial role in the emergence of gender norms. A recent strand of literature in economics empirically examines theories that link historical agricultural practices to gender norms and more. In this article, we discuss existing evidence on the relationship between historical agricultural and ecological factors and modern gender inequality.

Neolithic Transition

The anthropologist Jared Diamond wrote a popular piece in 1987 arguing that gender inequality was exacerbated by the Neolithic transition. The crux of his argument is that hunter-gatherers needed to keep a certain number of years between two offspring because they were constantly on the move from one place to another as they depleted food resources in each location.

By contrast, women in farming societies tended to have more frequent pregnancies because agricultural output could be stored for sustenance and they were not constantly on the move. More frequent pregnancies required women to stay home for longer to take care of small children. As a result, farming societies developed norms where women stayed at home while men worked outside in the fields.

Recent studies have examined this theory empirically and found evidence consistent with it. For instance, Hansen, Jensen, and Skovsgaard (2015) find that female labor force participation is higher in countries that moved to agriculture earlier. Fredriksson and Gupta (2018) find that the female-male sex ratio is lower in countries that transitioned to agriculture earlier.

Ancestral Plough Use

Boserup (1970) contends that the adoption of plough by early agrarian societies played a role in establishing gender norms that dictate that women’s appropriate place is at home. Societies that practice plough agriculture, as opposed to hoe agriculture, place a premium on male brawn because the use of plough required significant upper body strength.

Moreover, the use of plough diminished the need for weeding that was typically assigned to women. Consequently, women in plough practicing societies stayed and made their contributions from home while men worked in the fields.

Consistent with this hypothesis, Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn (2013) find empirical evidence that there are fewer women in the labor force and in national parliaments in countries in which a larger fraction of the residents come from societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture. In a separate paper, Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn (2018) argue that plough practicing societies, for the same reasons, preferred boys over girls, and hence sex ratios are in favor of men in societies whose ancestors used the plough.

Historical Ecological Endowment

Hazarika, Jha, and Sarangi (2019) explore the effects of ancestral ecological endowments on contemporary sex ratios. The ancestral ecological endowment is measured by the “average potential millions of kcal/hectare/year based on pre-Columbian crops under rain-fed & low input conditions” (Galor and Özak, 2016).

Hazarika, Jha, and Sarangi (2019a) find that female-male sex ratios are higher in countries whose ancestors were endowed with better ecological resources. They have similar findings using district-level data from India – sex ratios are in favor of women in districts with greater ancestral ecological resources. Interestingly, the authors do not find evidence of a significant, positive association between ancestral ecological endowment and female labor force participation. They conclude that the availability of ecological resources in antiquity lowered women’s wellbeing and their share of household resources which affected sex ratios, without having an effect on gender roles.

Arable Land in Antiquity

In a working paper (Jha and Sarangi, 2020), we argue that perhaps the most important historical agricultural factor, i.e., the availability of ancestral arable land in antiquity has been overlooked by the literature. The availability of arable land, also called ancestral arable land, is a common factor in all agriculture-based explanations of gender norms, yet its independent effect on gender norms and gender inequality has not been explored by any of these studies.

We hypothesize that the availability of arable land in antiquity played a role in strengthening gender norms that continue to impact women’s role and wellbeing. Our main argument is that societies with abundant arable land in antiquity needed more hands in the fields. As a result, such societies developed norms that promoted female labor force participation. Moreover, the scarcity of land placed a premium on male brawn by making cultivation more labor-intensive as well as because of their ability to “defend the farm against marauders” (Iversen and Rosenbluth, 2010). We, therefore, test the hypotheses that female labor force participation will be greater and gender inequality will be lower in countries whose residents trace their ancestry to arable land-abundant societies.[3] 

To test these hypotheses, we use the Gender Inequality Index (GII) from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The index is based on disadvantages that women face in three dimensions: health, empowerment, and the labor market. The health dimension accounts for maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate. The empowerment dimension is computed using women’s share of women in parliament and the female-male secondary education gap. Finally, the labor market dimension looks at the differences in the female-male labor force participation gaps. The GII takes values between 0 and 1, with higher values indicating more inequality.[4]

Our primary measure of arable land in antiquity comes from the study by Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn (2013). The ancestral arable land is computed as follows. First, the land within 200 kilometers of the origin of the ancestors of each ethnic group living in a country is identified. Second, the suitability of that land to the cultivation of six major crops is used to compute the share of each ethnic group’s ancestral land suited to agriculture. Third, a country’s ancestral arable land is arrived at by taking the weighted average of the ancestral arable land of each ethnic group with their share in the total population being the weight.

 Consistent with our hypotheses, we find that female labor force participation is greater and GII is lower in countries with greater ancestral arable land. Importantly, we find that these results are robust after we control for the current arable land. We control for a number of historical factors such as ancestral use of plough and the timing of Neolithic transition, economic factors such as the GDP per capita and share of agriculture and industry in GDP, institutional factors such as democracy index and communism indicator, and cultural factors such as religious fractionalization index, to account for heterogeneity across countries.

Further, we find that while ancestral arable land is associated with better health outcomes for women, it does not matter for their empowerment. We argue that since it was important for women to be healthy to return to the labor market, such societies developed norms where women’s health was important. But since empowerment (education and leadership) was not important for women to work in agricultural fields, these norms did not promote women’s empowerment.

We also utilize the World Values Survey data that allows us to rule out the possibility that our results could have been driven due to the omission of some country-specific fixed factors. We find that respondents of countries with greater ancestral arable land are less likely to agree with the following two statements: (1) men make better political leaders than women, and (2) men should have more right to a job than women in times of scarcity.

Concluding Remarks

Gender inequality continues to be prevalent around the globe. While gender equality is a goal in itself, evidence suggests that women empowerment has important implications for economic growth and development (see Duflo, 2012). To achieve gender equity, it is imperative to understand their root causes that determine gender norms.

Findings of the recent studies suggest that gender norms have been shaped by, among others, agricultural and ecological factors thousands of years ago, yet they continue to impact women’s roles and wellbeing. Therefore, we cannot presume that gender inequality will vanish with economic development, and policies should be designed that can modify gender attitudes and norms. 


Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. 2013. “On the origins of gender roles: Women and the plough”. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128, 469–530.

Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. 2018. “Traditional agricultural practices and the sex ratio today”. PloS One, 13, e0190510.

Boserup, Ester. 1970. Woman’s role in economic development. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Diamond, Jared. 1987. “The worst mistake in the history of the human race”. Discover, 8, 64–66.

Duflo, E. 2012. Women Empowerment and Economic Development. Journal of Economic Literature, 50(4), 1051-1079.

Fredriksson, Per G and Satyendra Kumar Gupta. 2018. “The Neolithic revolution and contemporary sex ratios”. Economics Letters, 173, 19–22.

Galor O, Ozak O. 2016. “The agricultural origins of time preference”. American Economic Review, 106(10):3064–3103

Hazarika, Gautam, Chandan Kumar Jha, and Sudipta Sarangi. 2019. “Ancestral ecological endowments and missing women”. Journal of Population Economics, 32, 1101–1123.

Hazarika, Gautam, Chandan Kumar Jha, and Sudipta Sarangi. March 2019. “Ancestral ecological endowments and contemporary sex ratios.” Ideas for India. https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/social-identity/ancestral-ecological-endowments-and-contemporary-sex-ratios.html

Hansen, Casper Worm, Peter Sandholt Jensen, and Christian Volmar Skovsgaard. 2015. “Modern gender roles and agricultural history: the Neolithic inheritance”. Journal of Economic Growth, 20, 365–404.

Iversen, Torben and Frances McCall Rosenbluth. 2010. Women, work, and politics: The political economy of gender inequality. Yale University Press.

Jayachandran, Seema. 2015. “The Roots of Gender Inequality in Developing Countries”. Annual Review of Economics, 7, 63–88.

Jha, C. K., & Sarangi, S. (2020). Arable Land in Antiquity Explains Modern Gender Inequality, MPRA paper 104336.

Putterman L,Weil DN. 2010. “Post 1500 population flows and the long-run determinants of economic growth and inequality”. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125(4):1627–1682

[1] Taken from the seventh wave of the WVS, each figure is the sum of the percentage responses “strongly agree” and “agree” to those statements (https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp).

[2] For contemporary determinants of gender inequality, see Duflo (2012) and Jayachandran (2015).

[3] For a non-technical summary of this paper, see Hazarika, Jha, and Sarangi (March, 2019).

[4] For details, visit http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/gender-inequality-index-gii

Note: This article is based on IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk by Chandan Kumar Jha and Sudipta Sarangi titled Historical Determinants of Gender Inequality under The State of Gender Equality – #GenderGaps on June 3, 2021.

About the Author

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Dr. Chandan Kumar Jha, Assistant Professor, Finance, Madden School of Business, Le Moyne College, United States

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Prof Sudipta Sarangi, Professor and Department Head, Economics, Virginia Tech, United States

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