Genesis of gender discrimination —by Jamil Nasir

Addressing the constraints women face in the labour market requires gender-sensitive market regulations. It is a matter of common observation that women are doing various household jobs like babysitting, cooking, cleaning, etc, outside their homes, but such employment is not covered through labour legislation or social security laws

A baby girl born in South Asia starts her journey of life with acute disadvantages due to the prevalence of deep-rooted gender discrimination in the region. Professor Alesina of Harvard with his two other colleagues has recently come up with evidence that suggests that gender discrimination is as old as the horse and plough. Further, use of the plough as a tool of ancient farming is an important variable in explaining the unequal gender roles even of today. In their research-based article titled ‘Women and the plough’, Alesina and his colleagues suggest that the use of the plough in agriculture has a positive correlation with gender inequality. It is negatively correlated with female labour force participation, female firm ownership, and female participation in politics, according to the evidence presented by these economists.

The evidence presented by Professor Alesina and his team is not that startling and cannot be termed new in the true sense of the word. We can find exhaustive historical and sociological accounts on the influence of social, political and historical forces that have been instrumental in shaping the present-day gender roles, especially in a traditional society like ours. In modern times, Ester Boserup’s book titled Women’s Role in Economic Development presents a vivid description of how the gender role differences owe their genesis to various forms of agriculture practised in the history of mankind.

How did the plough contribute towards formation of unequal gender roles? The argument runs that plough agriculture is capital-intensive compared to hoe agriculture, where the hoe and the digging stick are used as a substitute for the plough to prepare the soil for sowing. In hoe farming, women actively participated in agriculture whereas in plough farming, more upper body strength was required either to pull the plough or control the animal that pulled it. Moreover, the use of the plough reduced the need for weeding (a task generally performed by women and children) that, in turn, reduced the economic role of women. Thus, societies characterised by plough farming developed the norms and beliefs that required women to stay confined within the boundaries of the home.

Put another way, in hoe farming, almost all family members, male and female, participated in agricultural farming and contributed towards the earnings of the family. On the other hand, in plough agriculture, it was generally the male member(s) of the family who was responsible for ploughing the land, meaning female members were either confined to domestic chores or did the job that could not be accounted for in terms of currency, or could not be traded/bartered. In a way, the economy, being capital-intensive in nature, was not able to absorb women workers.

The point is that the evidence or findings of Professor Alesina and his colleagues do not have much newness but the empirical analysis conducted by them has lent credence to this line of argument. Moreover, one thing is abundantly clear from the above line of argument of these economists that it is the economic power/earning capacity that really matters. Against this background, without the economic empowerment of women, reducing gender disparities will remain a distant dream.

In order to economically empower them, employment of women in decent work/jobs is important. In the last decade or so, we have taken a number of important steps like increasing the number of women seats in the legislature and fixing a quota for women in the civil services. These steps are laudable but they are not sufficient in view of the enormity of the problem. There is a need to initiate policy actions to make their presence felt in every public and private sector department. The rural areas need to be the main focus as gender discrimination is more entrenched in rural Pakistan.

Addressing the constraints women face in the labour market requires gender-sensitive market regulations. Women’s activities are confined to the informal sector, small-scale farming or unpaid/lowly paid domestic work. It is a matter of common observation that women are doing various household jobs like babysitting, cooking, cleaning, etc, outside their homes but such employment is not covered through labour legislation or social security laws. Gender-sensitive regulations need to be devised to ensure fair treatment of such poor women. Further, institutional frameworks that limit women’s access to decent employment need to be revisited.

Facilitating access to assets like land, housing and property should be the second broad area of focus for empowering women economically. Access to financial resources is equally important. Provision of easy loans and technical assistance for setting up businesses can go a long way in financially empowering women. The experience of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh is a case in point. Traditionally, women have remained the main focus of Grameen’s activities. According to various accounts, women seldom defaulted on their loans. Further, the female loanees put their earnings to more productive uses like educating their children. Therefore, economic empowerment of women spurs development through other channels like female education, poverty alleviation, population control, etc.

If the labour market does not absorb women, then it is very likely that incentives for educating the girl child will not be there. But if they have access to the labour market and are free to participate in business/economic life, parents will be incentivised to provide education to baby girls. Female education is central to containing population growth. According to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, it is empirically proved that two variables, i.e. female literacy and female labour force participation have a significant effect on fertility. He further says that the joint benefits of the family can be widely shared if women earn an outside income or their work is recognised as productive.

Economic empowerment is thus the key to eliminating gender discrimination in society. Designing a gender-responsive employment promotion policy is the need of the hour. The wasteful discrimination that blights the developmental potential of our country needs to be removed to spur economic growth and development.

The writer is a graduate from Columbia University, USA in Economic Policy Management and studied economic governance in the UK. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times