Published here on September 27, 2013.
“Where is Daddy? Daddy is in the office. Where is Mummy? Mummy is in the kitchen.” When I was a child, a very long time ago, girl children mostly played house, or teacher, or sometimes, doctor. Our doll sets rarely included males, because men were always outside the house or away from the kitchen set which defined the boundaries of our ‘house.’ I hope that play is not as gendered any more (I fear it might be); but that is another topic for another day.
From this very simple middle class childhood experience, one took away abiding lessons. First, men do not work in the house. My father did, but sooner or later, I came to tag him as exceptional. Second, the work that is done in the house somehow lacks value. Chicken-egg reasoning: Men did not do this work because it had no value, and the work had no value because men did not do it. When men did housework, they were to be celebrated and their work valued. Third, the daily work of women in the house did not need to be acknowledged (that is, paid). A woman (family member or worker) doing work in the house created less value than a man doing the same work. Fourth, women only worked outside the house out of necessity. Fifth, the work that women do, inside or outside the house, was in general less valuable. Furthermore, because it was safe to assume that women were not the primary bread-winners in the household, one could pay them less. Sixth, men needed to support a family, so for the same work, they deserved to earn more than the women who might just be doing the same work as a hobby or who might be better able to adjust their needs and household expenses to their income. Finally, for women, the lessons of acceptance and adjustment came with doing housework free and earning less than men at every turn. Most of us, in my generation, never learned to negotiate good working terms for ourselves.
I qualify all these statements with ‘in my generation,’ but my suspicion is that while the young women I work with are less reluctant to ask for better money, they are a lot more accepting of other workplace sexism. That too, is another topic for another day. The bottomline is, in an age where value is expressed as money, women learn very early that they are worth far less than men. This is reinforced by the world in every transaction.
Patriarchy’s cruellest turn, I believe, is the expectation that women have a natural instinct for and derive pleasure from housework and domestic duties. No doubt, because they are raised to think of themselves as nurturing and natural care-givers, most women learn to feel this way. The truth is, and few will say it, housework is mind-numbing drudgery if you don’t do it out of true choice, and though it keeps the world moving, no one will ever thank you for it or pay the true value of that work. And it’s not just work within the home—in the kitchen, cleaning, taking care of children, the sick and the elderly—it’s also going to fetch water and firewood; it’s going to pay household bills; money management within the household; tutoring the children; income generating activities (for the household, not the woman). Think also of the number of small family-owned enterprises (shops, for instance) where wives and daughters work alongside, but never receive pay. Women’s work, they say, is never done and all of it is under-valued. Paying women for the work they do would not only express value for the work, but express value for the women.
An internet-based labour research project has found that in India, women earned about 54% what men did for the same job. The gap is negligible at lower income levels but grows with rising incomes and with age. That is, it is much greater at senior management levels than at entry-level or minimum wage jobs. And older women earn much less than their contemporaries at the same career stage. The same project also found that the more educated women were, the greater the gap between what they earned and what their male colleagues earned. The profession with the largest wage gap was medicine. And we’re not even talking about ‘glass ceilings’ here.
Women’s work within the household, we have established, is not regarded as ‘work.’ The International Labour Organization has found that fewer women in India are working outside the home or looking for a job. In part they attribute this to rising incomes (so women do not need to go out to work) and in part, to occupational segregation—women tend to seek work in fewer sectors than men. Women also work preponderantly in the informal sector, where wages are low. Whether it is domestic work, construction work, agricultural work or as a small entrepreneur, this work yields a low income and an uncertain livelihood.
Gender stereotyping and gender roles play a part in this. Women’s access to education and livelihood skills are often determined by what is considered suitable. While professional colleges admit more girls than ever before, elsewhere in the economy, it is less likely that women will choose to be plumbers, electricians or auto-drivers. Discrimination in health care and nutrition only compounds the physical challenge of coping with the double-burden of working inside and outside the home.
Economists have been writing about and debating the “feminization of poverty” for three decades. By this, they meant that women were making up ever-larger percentages of the world’s poor, largely because they earned less and held worse jobs; and because more and more of them were single-handedly bearing financial responsibility for their families, stretching one small income further. Where market reform and globalization are exacerbating income inequalities and inequalities of access within society at large, this impact is felt even more by women. They are locked out of many emerging opportunities, and end up earning less in a time when everything costs more.
The conclusion is inescapable: the low value placed on women is reflected in the value we place on their work and the way we express that value in terms of money. Women read this clearly, and learn not to value themselves as individuals. They are a burden, what happens to them is their fault, they have no rights or entitlements; so, they adjust, accept and live as lesser citizens. The real loser is society itself.
Breaking out of this cycle is one way to change the status of women in India. This could be done by helping women increase their incomes through education and training, access to opportunities and access to credit. More fundamentally, of course, this means that the life-chances of women, men and others should be the same in any society—health care, education, livelihood and security. The burden of unrecognized and unpaid work that women carry can be reduced, partly by acknowledgment, possibly by the payment of a standard wage, and most definitely, by work-sharing in the household and in family enterprises. Finally, civil society and policy experts need to step up advocacy efforts towards “equal pay for equal work.” No money, no value, no equality, no citizenship.