Women’s work must be recognised – and compensated

Women’s work must be recognised – and compensated

Gender gaps tend to be more pronounced in labour markets of developing countries, making it more difficult for women to enter and succeed in the workforce

Harini CalamurUpdated: Friday, April 21, 2023, 11:28 PM IST
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India has been seeing a decline in women’s labour force participation for some time. | Source: The Global Economy

Almost three years ago, most of the world shut down to protect itself from the impact of Covid. On the face of it, it was to save lives. But the impact on livelihoods was devastating. Amongst the most impacted were the most vulnerable – the unorganised sector, daily wage workers, shop tellers, contract workers. And most of these the world over were women.

Covid has had a major impact on women's employment and working conditions. While men faced greater mortality risks – more men died during the pandemic – women have been disproportionately affected in terms of livelihoods. Across the world – both the Global North and South, there existed gender inequalities at the workplace, even before Covid. Men tended to earn more, have more stable jobs, have better social security. Women did not. Due to pre-existing gender inequalities, women were already in a more vulnerable position than men in terms of job security and access to healthcare. The pandemic exacerbated these disparities.

The level of women's participation in the labour force varies significantly across developing countries. In the traditionally patriarchal societies of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, about 30% of women used to be part of the labour force. While this figure, was almost double in similar economies in East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this difference in labour participation is due to cultural and historical reasons – including civil war that saw men die in large numbers. Gender gaps tend to be more pronounced in labour markets of developing countries, making it more difficult for women to enter and succeed in the workforce.

Traditionally, India has seen low rates of female participation in the labour force. Or to be more precise, women did a fair amount of work that was not paid for. For example, a farmer’s wife is also a farmer. A fisherman’s wife takes the fish to the market. A potter’s wife makes and sells pots. However, the income is not attributed to her, nor does she have agency on either her labour, or the money earned through that labour.

India has been seeing a decline in women’s labour force participation for some time. In 1990, a shade over 30% of women participated in the economy. By 2021, in the year following the pandemic, that had plummeted to about 18.6%. But, to blame the pandemic alone would not be apt. There has been a gradual decline in women’s participation in the labour force since 2005, when it touched almost 32%.

A decade after liberalisation, as prosperity hit, it is likely that women in marginal employment – daily wage labour, moved out of the labour force, and took on larger roles within the household. This would include not just cooking and cleaning, but also include the larger share of child rearing, and care giving to the elders in the household. While we may say that all this is done out of a sense of ‘duty and love’ and cannot be measured in monetary terms, the fact remains that it is a tremendous amount of both physical and emotional labour.

It is estimated that women who are part of the labour force – those who go out of the house to earn money through work – spend an average of 7.2 hours a day on unpaid household work. The men in their household, in comparison, spend 2.8 hours on housework. For women who don’t go out to work, that number is likely to be much, much, higher.

Women are not paid for housework such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for family members. This unpaid work is not valued in real terms, though it brings value to all that it touches. Because this work is not included in traditional measures of economic activity, it is often undervalued and overlooked, despite its crucial role in supporting families and communities. In his book The Growth Delusion, David Pilling discusses the nature of 'women's work' and suggests that if tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing, and driving were included, they would add around $3.8 trillion to the American economy, thus increasing it by 26%.

While everyone agrees that the work done by the woman is invaluable for the household, society, and the nation – no one knows how to compensate her for this. Patriarchs and their enablers would insist that women are honoured because of this vital role that they play in society. However, it is unlikely that this concept of honour will give women economic security, or indeed agency over labour.

There can be no equality without parity. And there can be no parity without recognising that the emotional and physical labour put in by women to keep the world together, has real economic value. It is about time governments recognised this, and paid women for this work, a standard flat payment for women for their labour. It will have a tremendous impact at two levels – the first is empowering the woman and giving her agency. And the second is giving a fillip to the GDP. It is time that women’s work was seen as work – and not as love. And compensated accordingly.

The writer works at the intersecton of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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