A recent article in The Economist argued that India would be 27% richer if we were to rebalance our workforce. The article is well-intentioned in trying to estimate how the fall of female employment in India has adversely affected incomes and related aspects. However, in claiming that India needs women to work, it undermines the work that we are already doing. As is discussed in the article and elsewhere, the combination of unsafe work spaces, patriarchal societal norms that prefer if women do not work, and the lack of employment opportunities for women are steering the fall in employment. While these may be part of the picture, they by no means explain the complete scenario.
By definition, this notion of “work” precludes all unpaid work done by women everywhere. This disregards the concept of sexual division of labour that defines the very nature of not just employment, but society itself. The idea that women are inherently predisposed to household work, that it is naturally the job of the woman to do such activities has long prevailed in society. The article ends up underlining the same notions:
“Beyond the obvious economic benefits are the incalculable human ones. Women who work are likelier to invest more in their children’s upbringing, and to have more say over how they lead their lives.”
Invisibilised domestic work
Photo Credit: English Vinglish
While women do gain bargaining power through employment, the fact that women’s gains from employment are judged by the parameter of being able to invest more in their children’s upbringing is problematic. We have never seen the same metric being used to make an argument in favour of men’s employment. Thus, it is evident that it is being assumed that care-giving in this case is obviously a woman’s job.
Women are engaged in household work, caregiving, shopping and many such activities. Any data, regardless of whether it is from the NSSO or the Census, does not consider household work like cooking, child-care, and such activities as “work”. Hence, all domestic work is unpaid work. In this binary between “work” and “other non-work activities”, all the unpaid work done by women is summarily dismissed. Estimates by the World Economic Forum show that 66% of women’s work in a day is unpaid. It is not that women do not work; it is simply not accounted for. A UN Women report has estimated that if this work was accounted for, it would form 39% of India’s GDP. Thus, women do work, and much more than what is estimated. Instead of considering women who are engaged solely in unpaid household work as “not working” or “not contributing to the GDP”, the effort should be to include this work in calculations, as it subsidises not just the economy but also men’s work.
This can be easily imagined if we consider for a minute, that we simply replace the domestic work that women do, by having to pay someone to do the same work. An anecdote from Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee’s life makes it easier to comprehend. At a function, she was speaking to a group of men, and she decided to make this point:
“She asked one of them what his wife did during the day, to which he replied, ‘Nothing: sits home, eats my money, and gossips.’
Gbowee asked him to get up and go to the room’s blackboard, and write down his salary on it. ‘What does your wife do first thing in the morning?’ she then asked him. He said she made hot water. Gbowee asked him to write down how much he’d have to pay someone to do that… ‘He calculated it and [multiplied] it by 30 or 31 days, and by the time he looked at the figure, the wife made more than him.’”
If women’s unpaid work were to be remunerated, the escalation of costs in the economy would be tremendous. Thus, it is convenient for the whole society and economy, to keep women’s domestic work unpaid.
Gender wage gap persists
While we are on the topic, let also consider the situation of women who “work”, as per conventional definitions. Estimates have pegged the overall gender wage gap in India at 25.4%. This gap widens as one moves up the occupational hierarchy, and this appalling reality coexists with Article 39 of Directive Principles of State Policy, as well as a legislation that is already in place to ensure equal pay for equal work (The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976). It is important to note that this is just the formal sector, a source of employment for a miniscule section of the population. The situation in the informal sector can well be imagined.
Coupled with this is gender-based discrimination in hiring. It has been well-documented that a woman with the same qualifications as a man is much less likely to get hired than him. Moreover, women are subject to lower wages also because contracts are enforced citing their life cycle changes. We must note here that even when we “work”, we are not just paid less, we are also subject to the same unpaid domestic work that I mentioned above, thereby creating a double burden.
Let us amalgamate all this with the discrimination in access to education, health and other resources that girl children face, and we can somewhere begin to explain the fact that women in India have lesser bargaining power, and therefore, mostly face the most vulnerable jobs in the informal, unorganised sectors.
Sex-segregation of occupation
Conventional arguments also preclude any discussion on sex-segregation of occupation, by means of which women are relegated to lowly-paid, less productive jobs. The most recent evidence of this has been provided by the Economic Survey, where the increased feminisation of agriculture is documented as a result of men’s migration, with women playing multiple roles. According to the Survey, out of total female main workers, 55% were agricultural labourers and 24% cultivators, but women’s ownership of operational holdings was only 12.8%. Thus, we are forced to do jobs that men vacate, but will not be given ownership to resources.
Lastly, women’s workforce participation must be definitely increased, but the reason is not simply just that the nation’s income would increase. That is a superfluous argument at best. Women’s struggle through history has been to have access to what has been systematically denied to them for centuries. This purpose is defeated if we argue merely that women should work because it benefits the economy. The struggle is about much more than that. It is about equality, liberty and justice. It is about claiming what is rightfully theirs.
Evidently women’s work differs not just qualitatively from that of men, but quantitatively as well. It is high time we stopped dismissing most of women’s work as unpaid work, and instead try to admit the errors in estimation of our contribution to the economy. Gender-based budgeting is a small effort in this direction. The domestic, unpaid work must be included in the definition of work, and calculated as part of national income estimates. Equal pay for equal work remains a distant dream, and this is an on-going struggle. Hence, existing legislations like The Equal Remuneration Act and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act need to be further strengthened, and new legislations must take cognisance of women’s unpaid work.
A regime of such policies and Acts is essential in order to safeguard wages and salaries, and create better work conditions. We must acknowledge that the economy would probably collapse if women stopped doing this so-called non-work. Instead of discussing why India needs its women to work, let us talk about how India values the work that its women do.