Historical Determinants of Gender Inequality

Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Anshula Mehta, Nishi Verma

Social attitudes toward women and their role in society show remarkable differences across countries, including those with similar institutions or economic development. To enquire how the historical factors affected gender inequality today using the perspective of economics, the Gender Impact Studies Centre at the IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized a lecture on Historical Determinants of Gender Inequality”, as part of its series on The State of Gender Equality #GenderGaps.


Prof Govind Kelkar Executive Director, Gendev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram; Chairperson, GISC chaired the session. Prof Kelkar introduced the talk by expressing the importance of deciphering historical determinants to understand the state of inequality today. Whether it’s the wage gap, the disproportional burden of care work, or the disparity in the number of women and men getting the Covid-19 vaccine, it is undeniable that inequality arises significantly from cultural construction. She also spoke about how, in the transition to capitalist development, men exploit women’s knowledge and used her studies in the Thai-Laos border as well as in Malaysia to illustrate this. She criticized the idea of ‘the head of the household’ and questioned its usefulness.

“The paucity of women’s voices in democratic institutions is very clear.”

Says Prof Kelkar

Dr Kelkar

Prof Sudipta Sarangi Professor and Department Head Economics, Virginia Tech, United States began by introducing the idea that historical determinants influence today’s inequalities of gender. Along with Dr Jha, Prof Sarangi, in their research, explored how culture could impact the economics of inequality. They found that present-day gender inequality could be explained by historical factors.


Dr Chandan Jha Assistant Professor, Finance, Madden School of Business, Le Moyne College, United States started by saying that gender equality and gender equity is a goal in itself and women empowerment has important consequences for economic growth and development.

“Gender inequality in access to education, labour outcomes, political representation and life expectancy is persistency around the globe.”

Says Dr Jha

Dr Jha

Gender Inequality across the Globe

Dr Jha talking on various aspects of gender inequality across the globe Started by comparing the Gender Parity Index of education and the gender pay gap of different countries. Women were also underrepresented in national parliaments and more likely to live in poverty.

Transition to Agriculture and Gender Inequality

 Dr Jha proposed that the reason for gender Inequality being starkly different across countries and societies was historical factors that shaped gender roles and differences. Some scholars contend that the historical transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies created a gendered division of labour placing women inside the house, reducing their participation in the labour force. Other scholars believe that it was specifically the technology of the time that created gender roles, with societies that used the plough being more likely to have mostly men working on the farms and societies that used hoes to have a more equal participation in the labour force. Both these theories have been studied and have been found to be correlated to the present day showing up in skewed sex ratios and lower representation in parliament.

Resource scarcity and gender inequality in pre-history and hunter gatherers

Resource scarcity also played a role in gender inequality in pre-history as the lack of subsistence resources undermined women’s domestic and political status in hunter-gatherer societies. He stated that controlling their numbers was crucial for resource-scarce societies which was a responsibility delegated to women which led to cultures where women follow male decisions without questioning. He highlighted that even today resource scarcity of food in a household has shown to impact the nutrition of girl children more than boys.

Ancestral Ecological endowments and Missing Women

Dr Jha stating stated the research question of their first paper which was to investigate whether ancestral endowment of ecological resources affected modern gender inequality measured by missing women in India and China. They explored the relationship between ancestral ecological endowments and the current sex ratio controlling for variables like democracy, institutions, and religious composition. They found that better ancestral ecological endowments resulted in favourable sex ratios for women in the modern-day. He further illustrated that son preference has been a major cause for missing women in countries like China and India. According to the World Bank report 2011 6 million women are missing every year of which 23% are never born and 10%, 21% and 38% are missing in early childhood, reproductive years and above the age of 60 respectively.

Arable Land in Antiquity Explaining Modern Gender inequality

In their second paper, Dr Jha hypothesized that the abundance of arable land in antiquity played a role in shaping gender norms- less arable land leads to greater scarcity and stronger gender norms. Less arable land also increased the threat of war and the labour-intensive nature cultivation making men’s strength more valuable. They drew out the relationship using UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index and measures of arable land in antiquity, adjusted for migration and found a strong negative relation. The attitude regarding gender norms was also related to the abundance of arable land in antiquity. It was also found that abundance of arable land is significantly associated with the health and labour force participation of women today, but not empowerment outcomes like education and representation in parliament. This was because while higher arable land required greater participation of women in the fields, it was only their health that determined their performance and not education and empowerment. Today’s potentially arable land did not determine the inequality outcomes as well as historically availability of arable land indicating the setting in of gender norms over centuries.  Dr Jha pointed out that ‘norms are sticky, not static’ and measures like affirmative action, family-friendly leave, and employment opportunities for women improve their bargaining power and improve outcomes.

“Several historical agricultural factors played a role in shaping gender norms which continue to affect women’s well-being and roles long after the factors that led to these norms are gone”.

Says Dr Jha

Pertinent Questions and Concluding Remarks

Dr Bibhidutta Panda Associate Professor of Economics, Division of Social Sciences, University of Minnesota-Morris, Minnesota asked whether the historical factors also explained historical levels of gender inequality as that would help establish an argument of persisting inequality over the years and enquired about the kind of incentives required to bridge the inequality.

Dr Panda

Dr Sarangi explained that it was difficult to test persistency due to the lack of data available to measure the relationship. He suggested that educating men would be a good course of action to create change.

“Having more opportunities for women will change the scenario”.

Says Dr Panda

Dr Anamika Priyadarshini Lead, Research, Sakshamaa: Initiative for What Works, Centre for Catalyzing Change expressed her concerns over the idea that women working less in agriculture created male-favouring gender norms as in present-day in India, the maximum amount of agricultural work was performed by women. She pointed out the role of the colonial regime in creating the perception that women don’t contribute to economic activity should not be ignored and suggested that a political economy perspective would lend to a fuller understanding of gender norms and differences.

Dr Priyadarshini

Prof Govind Kelkar asked why the land ownership of women was not included to measure women’s entitlement over their finances as labour force participation rarely led to autonomy and entitlement. She pointed out how resource constraints struggled to explain gender differences will resource-abundant areas like South Delhi exhibiting high gender inequality. The gender blindness in data is reflected in how data on the land ownership of women is not available.

Dr Sarangi explained that they used institutional setups to control for property rights and that land ownership was not possible to include in cross-country analyses of quantitative data and would have to be understood in qualitative frameworks. Dr Jha reiterated the limitations of the quantitative methods and talked about his paper investigating whether a mother’s property ownership could affect a daughter’s property ownership. He commented on the deep-rooted nature of norms and their effect on outcomes.

“There is a much bigger role to be played by creating information and awareness to change behavior of gender inequality” Says Dr Sarangi

Dr Priyadarshini remarked that one had to be careful in evaluating the historical determinants of gender inequality as we could end up suggesting that societies were solely responsible for their own oppression, ignoring the effects of states, global institutions, and external factors like Covid. Gender inequality cannot be isolated from globalization and imperialism.

Acknowledgement: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI

Youtube Video : Historical Determinants of Gender Inequality



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