Recently, Surjit Bhalla took me to the (probable) use of female labor force participation (FLFP) as an indicator of women’s status. He argues that FLFP measurement reflects the cross-border differences in definitions of work rather than the fundamental situation of women. For example, women’s work in home production does not count in FLFP. The labor participation of women is therefore underestimated.
FLFP data varies significantly across emerging markets – variation has much more to do with measurement and definition than socioeconomic fundamentals; https://t.co/Me4qzQKJsu
— Surjit Bhalla (@surjitbhala) July 5, 2022
My point about definition and measurement was NOT about household survival – rather about whether FLFP was measured according to the definition (one hour per week versus “regular status”) and what is included/excluded in home production and home consumption work https://t.co/pP29QGdwOz
— Surjit Bhalla (@surjitbhala) July 5, 2022
In a purely statistical sense he is right. Home production is indeed undervalued in FLFP. For example, when women’s employment rate in West Bengal is extended to all economic activities that enable households to cut spending, it rises from 28 percent to 52 percent.
But if we are interested in patriarchy, we must distinguish between different types of work.
Not every kind of work is emancipatory. Ethnographies, focus groups and surveys tell us that rural women’s contributions are hardly considered “work” by men, and sometimes even by women themselves. Women’s farm work does not guarantee the prestige, autonomy or protection of women from violence. Even when North Indian women work long hours to harvest crops, grind grain and fetch firewood, they still eat last. As a 19th century saying of Haryana goes: “jeore se nara ghisna hai” (women tied up like cattle, working and tolerate everything).
Furthermore, we must distinguish between unpaid contributions to the household and paid work in the public sphere. When women work for family businesses, they stay under the control over relatives. Market, factory and office work offer many more opportunities for women solidarity. Paid work in the public sphere gives women prestige, builds them up various friendshipsdiscover more egalitarian alternatives together criticize patriarchal privileges, and are encouraged to resist dishonesty.
Paid work in the public sphere is counted under FLFP. So while wrong measurements of FLFP erase women’s valuable contributions to their households, they correctly track the types of work that provide pathways to female empowerment and solidarity.
Figure 1. Percentage of women who say men eat first
Note: Map created by author with data from https://ihds.umd.edu/.
The proportion of women in paid work in the public sphere also varies considerably around the world. This is both a cause and a consequence of the global heterogeneity in gender relations.
Table 1 below shows how regions differ in terms of ‘economic participation and opportunities’. This includes gender gaps in employment rates, wages for similar work, earned income, share of senior positions and professionals).
Table 1. World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap, Regional Performance, 2022
Source: World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2022.
South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are all caught up in what I call “the patrilineal trap.The share of women in paid work in the public sphere remains low because the earnings available are too low to compensate for the loss of male honour. So it is men who go out into the world, run family businesses and migrate to new economic opportunities. Women are more typically secluded, imbued with ideals of self-sacrifice, dependent on patriarchal guardians. The few women who encroach on the men’s turf are vulnerable to patriarchal backlash: Harassment and violence. While Home-Working South Asian Women Struggle to Fake friendshipsthey remain bound by patriarchal ideals.
Figure 2. Patriarchal ideologies persist in South Asia
Source: world bank, 2022, using data from World Values Survey.
East Asia was once equally patriarchal, but job-creating economic growth allowed women to pursue their own emancipation. Daughters achieved “sight” (respect and social status) by transferring income, maintain their families and show filial piety, just like sons. By migrating to cities, women made friends, complained about unfair practices and discovered more egalitarian alternatives. Encouraged by peer support, women began to expect and demand better – in dating, domesticity and industrial relations. Mixed freely in cities, young adults are increasingly dating before marriage, chose their own partners and then set up core households. They freed themselves from parental controls. This is a direct result of paid work in the public sphere.
In summary, attempts to correctly list women’s homework may please statisticians, but tell us little about patriarchy. Paid work in the public sphere is always counted and heterogeneity in this regard reflects substantial differences in gender relations around the world.
Photo credit: Alice Evans.