Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Friday, 5 August 2011

Why gender inequality persists in India: It's the soil, sistah!

Recently I came across an interesting article in The Economist which suggested that deep-seated attitudes to women might have something to do with agricultural practices! Surprised? The article cites a working paper by a pair of Harvard economists, Alberto Alesina and Nathan Nunn, and a UCLA business school professor, Paolo Giuliano.

The paper titled 'On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough' states in its abstract that "We test the hypothesis that traditional agricultural practices influenced the historical gender division of labor and the evolution and persistence of gender norms."

In its introduction the paper elaborates:

Originally put forth by a Danish economist, Ester Boserup (1970), who hypothesised that gender role differences have their origins in different forms of agriculture practiced traditionally. In particular, Boserup identified important differences between shifting cultivation and plough cultivation. 

Shifting cultivation, which uses hand-held tools like the hoe and the digging stick, is labor intensive and women actively participate in farm-work. 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 burst 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.

Also reinforcing this gender-bias in ability is 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 do not put children in danger. These are characteristics that are satisfied for hoe agriculture, but not for plough agriculture, particularly since large animals are typically used to pull the plough.

The result, according to Boserup, is that societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture – rather than shifting cultivation – developed a specialization of production along gender lines. Men tended to work outside of 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 a resulting gender-based 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 on activities performed outside of the home, such as market employment, entrepreneurship, or participation in politics.

This is an intriguing hypothesis which seems intuitively correct too. Now, the working paper has validated it.

This study rings true for India, where the plough has been used in agriculture traditionally, and gender inequality is endemic. When in doubt, consult the Classics - in my case, Indian mythology. The plough, in fact, pops up in a couple of interesting places.

Remember Sita, wife of Rama? Her father, King Janaka, found her in a vessel at the head of a ploughshare as he ploughed his field. Woman in India, as in other agri-based traditions, is symbolic of fertility. It is the man, however, who owns the land and all that springs from it. Wicked!

In another tale from mythology, Balarama - literally the strong one, the elder brother of the more famous Krishna, is also known as Halayudha, carrier of the plough. Before he married his wife Revati, who was physically much larger than him, he used his plough to whittle her down to size! To this day there is a wedding tradition in parts of southern India where the yoke of a plough is touched to the bride's forehead. Any atavistic harkings here?

Of course, why certain regions prefer plough to hoe is a function of the soil, the weather, the crops available, the domesticity of animals, etc. Moral of the story? Bharatiye Naari, for your sorry fate blame the deep loamy Indian soil as against the shallow clay soil of Burundi. Why Burundi, you ask?

Because Burundi's female labour force participation (FLFP) is 90.5%, sistah! And FLFP favours gender equality, usually. Burundi, for instance, shows up in the list of least severe gender inequality by region.

It's the soil, sistah ...


  1. nice article...lot's of research there...

    gender and income inequality started with became worse during Axial Age when big civilizations were growing which needed soldiers to protect and labors to build huge architectures...when you look at it, civilization has given us more problems than solutions


  2. What an unusual take on the roots of gender inequality. In the same vein, one can say that war leads to reduction of inequity since women have to take on traditional male roles, and males undergo reduction in numbers due to loss of life.

    I wrote a post recently after the Dirty Picture and Sunny Leone episodes that addresses social perceptions and gender inequity. you can find it at

  3. @ Subhorup: Isn't it! Will check out your blog post - thanks for sharing!