You Might be Through With the Gender Gap, but the Gender Gap Isn’t Through With You

Researchers have long known there’s a gender gap in African agriculture: woman-run farms are less productive than similar farms headed by men. The reasons for this disparity have been only hazily understood, though. To the extent that researchers had looked into it, they’d tended to focus on the level of farm inputs: farms headed by men seem to have access to more pesticides, more fertilizer, more and better land, more and more productive labour. So long as that’s the case, it’s no real surprise why woman farmers produce less.

It’s not just about the level of inputs used. Even after adjusting for the level of inputs used, women get less bang for the input buck.

But new research out today by the ONE Campaign jointly with the World Bank paints a more nuanced and, in some ways, much bleaker picture. It’s not just that farms led by men use more inputs, it’s that they use those inputs better.

Using newly available household level data from the Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA – all the data is freely available on the World Bank website, btw, so go and play), a team of researchers led by the bank’s Mike O’Sullivan and ONE Campaign’s Arathi Rao set out to decompose the sources of the agricultural gender gap in six African countries. Again and again, they find statistical evidence that it’s not just about the level of inputs used. Even after adjusting for the level of inputs used, women get less bang for the input buck.

What’s interesting here is that this isn’t just true of physical inputs like fertilizers and seed. It’s especially true when it comes to labour. Female-headed households are composed of fewer people than male-headed households, so there’s less labour around the house to begin with. They find that in Northern Nigeria and Uganda female-headed households also hire fewer farm workers than male-headed households, contributing to the gender gap. Elsewhere, like in Niger and Tanzania when women do hire farm hands those labourers are often less productive than when men are doing the hiring, which again boosts the farm gender gap. Similarly, extension services lead to bigger boosts in productivity when they’re made available to men, contributing to the gender gap in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Obviously, a multivariate regression can’t explain why these effects are there. Maybe cultural norms make it harder for women to supervise hired labourers than for men to do so. Maybe women who run farms spend so much time looking after children their agricultural productivity suffers. Maybe there’s some implicit gender bias in the way extension services are provided that makes them more useful to men than they are to women. There are major knowledge gaps at play with these issues, it’s not really possible to say at this point.

What the research makes clear is that a simple strategy of making sure women farmers have access to the same level of inputs as their male counterparts won’t erase the significant gender gap in farm productivity documented all over Africa. Some creative policy-making will be needed. Maybe women farmers need vouchers to hire extra seasonal workers. Maybe village day-care centers can free up their time to work more effectively on the farm. Maybe extension services need to be rethought to address the specific problems women farmers face. Maybe women need special encouragement to plant higher value crops.

A whole lot of experimentation is going to be needed to suss out which of these interventions can really make a difference and which can’t. And this, if nothing else, looks to me like the future of this line of research: RCTs. Lots of RCTs.


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