By Joseph Price

Have you ever wondered why your spouse is more or less willing to help out around the house? A recent study by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn suggests that at least part of the gender role attitudes that we have today stem from the way our ancestors planted their crops. During the pre-industrial age, the geo-climatic features of different parts of the world made it more likely for the people to use one of two approaches to agriculture.

The first approach involved the labor intensive procedure of what is referred to as “shifting agriculture” which requires manual labor with very rudimentary farming tools such as shovels and hoes. Although this form of agriculture is very labor intensive, it does not require outstanding physical strength.  As a result, this approach to agriculture could be shared relatively equally between men and women and promoted a more egalitarian view of gender roles.

The second approach was the use of the plough which required a great deal of upper body strength.  In this case, farming required more than just good stamina and a steady pace; ploughing a field required grip strength, strong arms, and bursts of power.  This approach laid the burden of agriculture primarily on men and fostered a form of specialization in which men tended to the fields and women to the home.

map agriculture

Historic Plough Use (Low=Yellow, High=Red)

The authors show that these agricultural patterns from the pre-industrial period continue to influence the attitudes of individuals today.  Specifically they find that descendants of societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture have lower female labor force participation rates, a lower fraction of firms owned by women, and a lower fraction of political offices held by women. They also use data from the World Values Survey to show that even within a country, those districts that had a higher rate of plough use in the past continue to have higher rates of respondents report that scarce jobs should be filled by men or report that men are better political leaders. Finally, they show that individuals carry these attitudes and behaviors with them even when they emigrate to a different country and are no longer influenced by any institutions that might have arisen from their agricultural heritage.

More broadly, the results of this research indicate that environmental factors can continue to influence attitudes and behaviors generations after those factors are no long relevant. In particular, fathers might consider the degree to which their attitudes and behaviors related to fathering are influenced by environmental factors that are no longer relevant. For men still influenced by their plow-bearing ancestors, it is probably time to spend more time reading to the kids, washing the dishes, and treating their spouse as an equal partner.