Gender Disparities in Labour– A Case of the Seen and the Unseen

There is a visible gender disparity in workforce participation globally, where men enjoy a significant majority of the representation in the labour market. According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) survey, this majority stands at a staggering 75 percent as of 2018, while women’s participation remains at 48 percent. This statistic makes it clear that we, in fact, do see more men in our workplaces than women, but does this necessarily mean women don’t work as much as men do? Yes and no. Yes, in terms of the ‘seen labour’, men do account for more of the labour force participation. However, if we were to account for the ‘unseen labour’, women’s participation would far outweigh that of men. We will look at this ‘unseen labour’ more closely and explore the different economic, social and policy dimensions attached to it.

Seen and unseen labour

Before we move forward however, we must breakdown what these terms mean. When I introduce the term ‘seen labour’ here, I simply refer to that form of labour, which we are more aware of, formally known as ‘paid labour’. This is the type of labour that makes up employment statistics, the means to production reflected in the GDP and more importantly, the form of labour that demands remuneration in exchange.

The ‘unseen labour’ is a form of labour we all perhaps partake in, to some extent, but don’t necessarily consider a job and refer to as more of a chore. Formally called ‘unpaid labour’, this is the type of labour that doesn’t receive direct remuneration in exchange. We see this expressed as domestic work, which is essentially labour that takes place within households for self-consumption and maintenance, as well as care-giving to children and other members of the household. This also takes the form of volunteer work and internships that may be unpaid.

The problems behind the curtain

In a stable economy and society, these two types of labour essentially work hand in hand, and would need to do so in order to sustain this stability of both, the society and economy. The point where this dichotomy becomes problematic is when we discuss who enjoys the majority share of participation and in which type. As discussed earlier, men very clearly enjoy a majority share of participation in the paid labour market. This is the market which is economically valued and remunerated for in exchange, owing to their contribution in terms of production of goods and services. Contrary to this however, exists the unpaid labour market, dominated by women, specifically with regard to domestic and care work, which also does produce an economic value but isn’t remunerated for, making it a one-sided form of labour in contrast to an exchange. These differences in the remuneration aspect, to a large extent, dictate the unequal treatment of the two genders.

The extent of this disparity

Women undertake four times more of this unpaid work than men, which accounts for around 76.2 percent of hours spent in unpaid work. In Asia alone, this figure rises to about 80 percent. However, as opposed to men, who for the large part spend their time and energy only contributing to the economic production cycle, the women are often obligated to attend to the domestic household work in addition to the paid work they do outside. Hence, the household work leaves the women feeling exhausted, spent and more often than not, in return, still not valued in society as much as men.

In India however, the situation ranks at the second worst in the world, where women share a high load of more than 557 percent of domestic work as opposed to men. As a country where conservative ideologies are more widespread, the Indian society often forces its women to remain solely within the households where, in addition to not being valued for not contributing to the economy directly, they also lose out on the opportunity cost of gaining agency through paid work outside.

Rooted in patriarchy, today, it’s unfortunate that women are treated as the ‘second-gender’, inferior to men on a global level. A strong grounding for this, in fact, rests within the power and self-esteem one possesses as a consequence of contributing economically. However, the problem with this is that most people overlook the fact that this unpaid domestic and care work also has an economic value. When you take into consideration the fact that domestic and care work are jobs that keep the household and its members functional and healthy enough to then be able to contribute to economy via paid labour, you see that the women who perform unpaid work do in fact contribute to the economy indirectly but significantly.

The solutions in the kit

The solution to this lies primarily in the fact that men need to take up more of the load. Although an easy statement in writing, executing this requires years of socialization and unlearning the norms set by patriarchy. So, what can we do for our women?

One solution to lower the number of hours undertaken by women in unpaid labour would be to simply make these tasks and duties performed by women, paid. Women in the rural region of India specifically, spend a large portion of their time fetching water for the agriculture work. If the government were to thus, simply pay them for this job they gain more economic power and this work of theirs would come to be valued. Furthermore, policies that provide the basic infrastructure for these tasks in terms of, water access, electricity, transportation, etc. help ease a lot of this burden.

In the organized sector, work policies aimed at sufficient maternal and paternal leave, flexible work policies and child-care in the workplace could encourage having more women on board in the workplace activities. In addition to this, making workplaces a safe, harassment-free zone with laws in place to protect them would incentivize women further to join the workforce.

Another solution with regard to this pertains to giving women more agency by accounting for their work in the GDP. The tasks undertaken by women in the unpaid labour sector like cooking, cleaning, and caring for household members like children and the elderly alone can be valued at around 3.1 percent of the GDP according to OECD data. By accounting for this labour in the GDP figures, we give recognition to this unpaid work and in turn, provide agency to women. However, this does have its limitations when it comes to accurately accounting for the unpaid labour.

Major implications– Short and long term

The implications of correcting this disparity are vast. With policies relating to redistributing the unpaid labour among the genders, we could potentially notice a chain reaction where the issue of wage differentials on the basis of gender may result in closing this gap to some extent. This economic empowerment, in turn, gives women the agency to fight patriarchal norms to obtain a better position in society.

If women continue to share a higher load in the unpaid labour sector, we will continue to keep a major segment of our women disempowered. Patriarchy is thus, cashing in on women’s unpaid labour by forcing them to stay at this second-gendered, inferior position. The way forward thus, lies in encouraging women to participate more in the paid workforce by making the conditions favourable to them. In addition to this, we could invest more in making the unpaid sector, paid and granting easier conditions to perform this work. The most effective solution, however, would be to efficiently redistribute this unpaid labour among men and women. Although this goal now is something that appears to be utopian due to the rigid patriarchal norms that govern our society, it is definitely something we should consciously strive towards through our policies.

Picture Courtesy- As You Sow

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