Monday, April 7, 2014

Did the plough doom us to millennia of gender inequality?

'Women are supposed to stay at home and raise children.' 'Men are supposed to work and bring home money to provide for the family.'

Throughout the world, we have many ideas of which gender should be responsible for what---perhaps the most fundamental and universal has been employment roles. Why is that?

One theory has to do with the nature of work: the economic structures of "traditional" society were largely manual labor based, almost necessarily ensuring the centrality and dominance of the physically more muscular male in economic production. People have argued that this started with the plough thousands of years go: before the plough, men and women were equal economically in that both could till soil and gather food by hand with equal skill. Accordingly, they were largely equal socially, intellectually, and in terms of power.

But when the plough was invented, it required a great deal of upper body strength to produce more agricultural output. So the gathering work that women did became less economically relevant, and the remaining work was left to the physically stronger sex---by nature's course, this was usually the male. Most consequential economic activity became dependent on the successful physical performance of the male. This was furthered by the thought that women’s interaction with domesticated farm animals would reduce fertility levels.

In his seminar last week on “The Origins of Gender Roles: Women and The Plough,” Alberto Alesina of Harvard University explored the effects of this ancient technological innovation on today’s perception of gender roles. The fact that work was bifurcated along gender lines so long ago, he argues, has meant that these norms and expectations persist even centuries after humans moved beyond agriculture as the primary economic activity.

Controlling for things like ethnicity, politics, and geographic features, Professor Alesina and his colleagues matched up traditional and ancient plough usage with today’s women’s labor market participation and perceptions of gender equality and norms. They found that there is, in fact, a strong correlation between ancient plough usage and gender inequality today. That technology affected not just the realities of work, but also the norms, markets, institutions, and policies that were shaped around them.

Since then, however, we’ve seen some profound changes in economics. Urbanization and industrialization, for example, brought women back into the workforce in a large way and galvanized the women’s and labor rights movements---to say nothing of the service sector. And though today’s inequality may have its roots in ancient technologies, it is still propagated by harmful norms and narratives that we certainly can control.

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