Gender and the Long-Run Development Process: A Survey of the Literature


Youssouf Merouani
Department of Economic History
Lund University
Faustine Perrin
Department of Economic History
Lund University

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Why do certain countries display high gender equalities while others display low gender equalities? To what extent did women contribute to fostering economic development? Among the first economic historians working on women and gender-related issues, many focused on the changing economic role of women during the industrialization process (e.g. Clark, 1920; Pinchbeck, 1930) and its effects on the family economy (Tilly and Scott, 1989; Humphries, 1991). Economists, and economic historians, have also addressed the role of gender and women’s economic activities in economic development (e.g. Boserup, 1970; Goldin, 1990). Over the past decade, a burgeoning literature has invigorated the discussions and contributed to provide a more complete and relevant picture of women’s role on economic development.

The growing body of empirical and theoretical research about women’s contribution has provided evidence to establish that women have played a determining role in the economic prosperity of societies. Recent findings have changed the perceptions we generally had of women’s contribution to long-run economic development. Women have always worked, but their position in society has not been static, it has evolved alongside the development of societies.

This survey reviews the literature on women in economic history and on how gender equality and women autonomy did contribute to foster economic development. The survey covers mostly research about Western European countries since pre-industrial times. After providing a synthetic overview of the development process experienced by Western Europe over the past two centuries, its theoretical foundations, and key underlying mechanisms, we present the literature on the changing economic role of women at the time of the Great Divergence. Next, we discuss how culture and norms influenced gender roles, and ultimately the path of development. We then present the recent progresses made in capturing gender disparities in the past. Beyond emphasizing the progresses made in the past decades and establishing where our knowledge stands today, we highlight the main debates that enliven the discipline.

Despite the progress made, numerous questions remain and further research is needed to deepen our understanding of the channels and dimensions through which gender equality and women empowerment foster economic development, and conversely the mechanisms through which economic development enhances gender equality. Active debates and discussions continue to divide scholars: Is the male-breadwinner a myth or a reality? Are gender differences explained by productivity differentials and market forces or determined by culture, norms, and preferences? Does the female labor force participation follow a U-shaped trend as countries develop? If yes, how pronounced is the U-shape? Are marriage patterns conducive to growth? What mechanisms are at the origins of the demographic transition? Do historical events and cultural traits persist and influence contemporary economic development? What are the key factors explaining the paths and trajectories followed by countries and regions across the globe?

To provide answers to these questions, preliminary challenges need to be addressed. Among them: Which gender variables are the most relevant to study women’s contribution to the development process in a historical perspective? How should these variables be measured? What reliable data can be used? The female labor force participation is one of the vital determinants, yet as emphasized in the survey, measurement issues surround the variable and complicate the analysis. Women’s historical labor force participation is hard to capture for various reasons. Beyond inherent problems of reporting women in historical statistics and resources availability, the challenge lies in the definition of ‘work’ itself. The definition evolved over time and may have differed across space. What definition should be used for consistency? Recent research suggested complementary directions to better account for women’s work and participation, such as accounting for unpaid labor and unpaid care. Complementing quantitative measure with qualitative information can also promote our knowledge of how women and men lived in the past, how they used their time, and what types of work they performed (e.g. Ågren, 2017).

The development and creation of new and innovative databases would make it possible to reassess and refine earlier findings, from documenting correlations toward identifying causality, bringing up complementary and new evidence to nourish current debates and controversies, and maybe correct mistakes and debunk myths. These promising and stimulating avenues for future research in economic history will undoubtedly contribute to further improving our understanding of the role played by women and gender on the long-run development process and its subsequent effect(s) on contemporary economic development.



Ågren, M. (2017). Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society. Oxford University Press.

Boserup, E. (1970). Woman’s Role in Economic Development. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Clark, A. (1920). Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. Harcourt, Brace and Howe.

Goldin, C. (1990). Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women. New York: Oxford University Press.

Humphries, J. (1991). ‘Lurking in the Wings…’: Women in the Historiography of the Industrial Revolution, Business and Economic History, 20, 32–44.

Pinchbeck, I. (1930). Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850. London.

Tilly, L. A. & Scott, J. W. (1989). Women, Work and Family. New York: Routledge.