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Your fate is written in the rain

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The Economist reports on work by Alberto Alesina and Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Paola Giuliano of the University of California, Los Angeles, that suggests that modern gender roles are determined by ancient climates through the means of agricultural technology:

The economists trawled a vast amount of rather unusual data to reach their conclusions. Their primary source of information was a detailed ethnographic description of over 1,200 language groups across the world. For each group, the data included a description of its agricultural methods as far back in time as it was possible to go using historical evidence or, in the case of groups which did not have a written language, the first time they were observed by outsiders. The data also noted whether agriculture was the preserve of either of the sexes, or whether both participated. Historically, women were much more involved in farming among groups that did not use ploughs.

Despite a host of changes over the subsequent centuries—such as industrialisation and higher overall rates of female participation in the workforce—the economists find that variations between countries in the fraction of adult women who work outside the home can be explained rather well by the farming practices of their ancestors. This variation is huge. Only about a quarter of women in the Arab world work outside their homes, but 91% of women in Burundi do. In most industrialised countries the fraction ranges between half and three-fifths. But in countries like Rwanda, Botswana, Madagascar or Kenya, whose people are predominantly descended from hoe-users, women are far more likely to be in the labour force than those in historically plough-using places like India, Syria or Egypt.

This alone does not prove the Boserup hypothesis. It is possible that societies which had very strong notions about “a woman’s place” or “men’s work” were the ones which adopted the plough. Did the plough cause attitudes to be formed, in other words, or did existing attitudes lead to its adoption?

The academics point out that the decision to choose—or abstain from—plough cultivation has a lot to do with the type of farmland and climate. Broadly speaking, ploughs are most useful for crops that require large tracts of land to be tilled in a short span of time, perhaps because the climate favours a grain with a relatively short growing season. Crops like wheat, teff, barley and rye are well-suited for plough-based farming; others, including sorghum, millet, roots and tubers, benefit less from the use of the plough. The economists were able to use measures of agro-climatic conditions to predict which parts of the world would adopt the plough. The data show that ethnic groups whose ancestors would have been expected to pick ploughs based on climatic conditions have sharply differentiated economic roles for the sexes even today. So it seems reasonable to argue that its use drove attitudes rather than the other way around.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 25, 2011 at 5:00 am

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