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Is Domestic Work Inherently Hers to Do?

Altering the ‘opportunity cost’ of women working outside the home must begin with dropping the assumption that domestic work is the woman’s to do.

Is domestic work only the woman's domain? Credit: Reuters

Is domestic work only the woman’s domain? Credit: Reuters

I arrived at the Raha’s second floor apartment in Kolkata’s Picnic Gardens area with a survey schedule. It was the daughter’s birthday, and we were accommodated into the party. Balancing sprite and bhujia on one knee and the questionnaire on the other, I explained to the parents that we were conducting a study on women and work. My first question was directed towards the father: “How do you feel about women working?”

“Firstly,” he said, “the television needs to go for any work to happen. Look at her, not even concentrating on your questions.” His wife was engrossed in her serial and protested with giggles. “But I’ve already answered my questions! I finished it, you haven’t finished yours!” Their tall teenage daughter suppressed grin as she made rounds greeting the many guests.

“To be honest, I have no problem with women working,” he continued, “In fact, money is often scarce. I work two shifts as a driver but it’s still tough to cover the expenses of two children at school and the household. If my wife worked it would definitely help.”

“Then why doesn’t she? Is she not interested?” I asked.

“See, it has to be practical. She would have to earn more than would go in paying for a maid to cover her work at home. Otherwise, what’s the point?” His wife nodded in agreement with this persuasive logic.

I’ve heard this argument before. In another lower middle-class home, I learned how a woman had worked out a compromise and opted for part-time work that could fit around her domestic schedule. This logic plays out in a number of families where finances are strained. And it has repeatedly, and uncritically, been described in scholarship by the same people who would actively denounce scientifically unsupported notions of the inherent suitability of women for domestic work.

The economist Victor R. Fuchs, in his 1983 book How We Live, uses the concept of ‘opportunity cost’ (the value of the alternatives forsaken when we make a choice) to explain why wages for women in the USs had to rise beyond a threshold for them to be able to participate in the workforce. These women could only reduce the amount of time they spent on housework when they were earning enough to buy time-saving household implements or hire domestic help. Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate and pioneer in the field of ‘family economics’, posited that while wages are unequal along gender lines, it is only logical that men and women ‘specialise’ in the domains (paid and unpaid, respectively) assigned to them by gender roles.

Over time, feminist economists like Barbara Bergman hit back at the sexist underpinnings of family economics. Yet not many women ask why they must bear the cost of this ‘practical’ arrangement. Why must the female householder ensure that the unshared burden of housework is entirely dealt with – either through her finances or labour – before she can think of pursuing a profession?

Sociologist Catherine Hakim echoed the sentiments of many men while arguing that there is no injustice in women having to work a ‘double shift’ (i.e. unpaid domestic and childcare work alongside paid work). She dismissed the claim of an ‘uneven burden’ as fallacious because men in Britain do equal hours of ‘productive work’, even though most of it is outside the home. Leaving aside that such empirical studies are inapplicable to the Indian context, let us examine what the ‘opportunity cost’ means to a man pursuing higher hours of paid work are.

The OECD time use survey for India shows that men largely devote the hours spent away from work to personal care. They also appear to enjoy an extra hour of leisure time (usually spent watching TV) as compared to women. When domestic work is shared, it usually follows gender expectations; as such, childcare falls largely to women. Since it is easier and cheaper to employ a surrogate to shop for groceries than to raise a child, the unpaid domestic responsibilities taken on by men are not equivalent to women’s work. In a situation dramatically different from that of married women, the domestic labour contribution of married men is replaceable, and when they choose to pursue paid work they have to cut down on leisure. We shouldn’t be surprised then that they can afford to make this choice more often than women.

Apart from limiting the choices available to some women, the current patriarchal framing of the conflict in terms of ‘opportunity cost’ also pits the interests of women from one economic class against another. The wages of the predominantly female domestic worker in India are already woefully depressed and female members of employing families – with whom domestic labour largely have to negotiate – is particularly incentivised to keep them down.

There are multiple fair ways of distributing the responsibility of income-earning and unpaid domestic work between a couple, which could range from dividing both, to state intervention in childcare, to even a segregation of domains between partners. But first, we will have to drop the assumption that domestic work is inherently hers to do.

Joyeeta Dey is a development researcher affiliated with the Pratichi Institute. This survey was part of the London School of Economics study on women’s work participation, and was led by Naila Kabeer and Ashwini Deshpande.