Gender and mechanization: Exploring differential effects on rural men and women


by Hiroyuki Takeshima, Xinshen Diao, and Evgeniya Anisimova | December 16, 2021

Gender-based differences in how women and men engage in work activities are important elements of gender inequality in rural livelihoods and welfare in developing countries. Technologies, such as those available through agricultural mechanization, can help address this inequality, but several important conditions must be met. First, men and women need to have equal information about and access to technology. Second, women should be able to use it, including such aspect as physical ability, social norms, and necessary training. Finally, the technology must meet women’s real needs and conditions.

Governments in developing countries are increasingly exploring ways to promote agricultural mechanization as part of a strategy to achieve gender-inclusive agri-food system transformation. For example, in October 2019, the government of Burkina Faso, in collaboration with the African Union, launched an initiative to advance mechanization to better meet women’s needs and contribute to their empowerment in agriculture.

In theory, mechanization can affect men’s and women’s labor differently resulting in an increase or decrease in women’s absolute and relative labor effort. It can also change the type and quality of work performed by women, including the shift from farming to nonfarming activities.

Studies on the role of agricultural mechanization in gender outcomes in agriculture generally focus on 1) ex ante analyses of how pre-mechanization conditions may influence outcomes for men and women; and 2) ex post analyses of how mechanization is associated with different patterns of changes in female labor use in agriculture and other activities.

Recent PIM research on the effects of agricultural mechanization on gendered labor activities provides useful insights into these issues. The study assesses how the use of tractors is associated with patterns of work engagements in farming and nonfarm activities in four African (Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania) and four Asian (India, Nepal, Tajikistan, and Vietnam) countries, using a variety of large panel datasets.

We find that the use of tractors and/or combine harvesters by the household induces women to shift from farm to nonfarm activities to a larger extent than men. These effects are consistent across all 8 countries studied and under alternative methods of analysis. These patterns also seem to hold across households with different farm sizes, although they are somewhat stronger among smaller farms.

In absolute terms, we find that households’ use of tractors and/or combine-harvesters does not lead to increased labor time of women in the agricultural activities. Rather, quite often, it leads to reduced engagements in the agricultural sector and increased engagements of women in the non-agricultural sector.

Research from Tajikistan shows another interesting result. Use of machines on the farm leads to a relatively greater shift from farming to nonfarm activities among women if these women come from households that exhibit higher women’s empowerment in agriculture index (WEAI). Thus, empowering women is found to have the hoped-for effect of enabling them to have greater agency in their livelihood choices.

A relative shift by women into nonfarm activities induced by mechanization can potentially help narrow gender gap in labor productivity and empowerment, if nonfarm activities in fact provide relatively higher returns to female labor. However, if this is an outcome of female labor displacement, women may be simply taking up lower productivity activities even if these activities are in the nonfarm sector. Identifying these underlying mechanisms is critical to better understanding the roles of agricultural mechanization on gendered livelihood outcomes.

Although the results of this multi-country study suggest a beneficial role of mechanization for women in farming households, we were not able to measure all relevant outcomes for men and women.  A follow-up work, combining quantitative and qualitative methods, is needed to cover a broader range of outcomes. Further research comparing the effects of different types of mechanization would also be important to enable wider extrapolation of results.

To learn more about this research, read the paper:

Takeshima, Hiroyuki; and Diao, Xinshen. 2021. Agricultural mechanization and gendered labor activities across sectors: Micro-evidence from multi-country farm household data. IFPRI Discussion Paper 2066. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Xinshen Diao is Deputy Division Director and a Senior Research Fellow in the Development Strategy and Governance Division of IFPRI and co-leader of PIM’s Flagship 2: Economywide Factors Affecting Agricultural Growth and Rural Transformation. Hiroyuki Takeshima is a Senior Research Fellow in the Development Strategy and Governance Division of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and leader of the research cluster on Public Investments and Institutions within PIM under Flagship 2. Evgeniya Anisimova is PIM Communications Manager.

Photo: During field day women farmers use a mini tiller for direct seeding maize. Ramghat, Surkhet, Nepal 2016. Credit: CIMMYT/P. Lowe

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