Women and work: From Cinderella to Ella

Women and work: From Cinderella to Ella

A woman does over seven hours of unpaid domestic work and care work in a day, relative to a little over two hours by a man

Representative image. Credit: iStock Photo

Let us begin with meanings:

Cinderella; noun / Cin.der.el.la: One who is used as a drudge by step motherly treatment and suffers undeserved neglect

Ella; noun / El.la: One suddenly lifted by perseverance from obscurity to significance

Time is of the essence of life and not in recent memory has this manifested in as stark a manner as this past year. Its two principal characteristics— finiteness and irreversibility — make it invaluable, especially for the majority of households for whom the borders between work, family and social life are blurred. Time, in a flailing economy like ours— comprising disparate and desperately poor households — should be viewed as of important economic value to underline the social and economic implications of time allocation. Indeed, several regression models point to the intimate correlation between time use and economic development. In this backdrop, the findings of the ‘Time Use in India - 2019’ Survey (TUS) of the National Statistical Office (NSO) generates important insights with implications for public policy.

The TUS is the first national survey of its kind conducted by the NSO and was carried out between January-December 2019. The sample covered about 5,000 villages, 4,000 urban blocks and over 138,000 households. The TUS measures participation and time spent by people in India in paid activities, unpaid work, learning, and self-care activities, amongst others. It provides estimates of indicators of time use for both rural and urban areas, with different levels of disaggregation across gender and demography.

If put to good use, this data can be invaluable in policy formulation, decision support, and analytics for a wide range of stakeholders, and can help the states to design and implement targeted social and economic interventions, engaging the community. Its standout use are the insights it provides on the widespread gender inequalities related to time allocation, life cycle, and the measure of the economic impact of time use on social development. The findings suggest that there is no more important issue than to find ways to mainstream gender in the labour market and therefore in development praxis.

The principal findings from the TUS relate to the asymmetry between paid and unpaid work and between men and women in work and time use, and thus raise important questions. Three highlights from the report suffice for our purpose: First, on average, a woman does over seven hours of unpaid domestic work and care work in a day, relative to a little over two hours by a man. The domestic chores that reduce women to kitchen rags, like Cinderella, include cooking, cleaning, housekeeping and care-giving.

How are we going to deal with the unpaid domestic-care work problem in itself? From the woman’s perspective, it is quite simply the problem of time poverty. If all her time in the day goes in unpaid work, leaving her little time to do much else, what might she possibly do to achieve the status of an autonomous economic agent? From the economy’s perspective, this represents an opportunity cost, compelling us to come to terms with how we might value women’s unpaid work in wage terms and ensure their productivity inclusiveness in our economic models.

Second, the participation rate for women in employment and related activities is a mere 19 per cent in rural areas and, even worse, an abysmal 16 per cent in urban areas. While rising incomes and education levels can account for some of the observed decline in female labour force participation rate, the evidence points to scarcity of jobs and gender-unequal social norms that severely constrain women’s agency, mobility and work. Evidence also points to discrimination of women in the labour market.

Labour market inequality in the context of women and employment is far bigger than mere numbers and encompasses complex issues including the quality of employment, gender wage gap, informality, and the feminisation of work. The central actionable question really is whether we can establish, at least for the informal labour market— more kinds of work and workplaces are being rendered informal— a tax-funded social protection system for women workers. 

Third, the participation rate of women in the age group 15-29 in learning activities stands at a measly 22 per cent in rural areas, and a suboptimal 32 per cent in urban areas. This begs the question why, despite the targeted skilling of women, and higher education enrolments, is the female labour force participation rate declining? And in particular, why is the decline sharper in rural India?

The consequences, from a public policy and programme design perspective, should not be missed. There is a remarkable mismatch between the work a woman wants to do, and the skill sets she can acquire. So, what should be the pedagogical approach to functional literacy and skill development for women?

Time allocation varies across countries, but each society has a unique time-use character— generated by its own culture, traditions, and levels of education— and in India, it is one that renders women non-autonomous, non-economic agents. For too long we have consigned women, with stepmother-like treatment, to the drudgery of unpaid domestic work and undeserved neglect. If there is just one insight that we can draw from the TUS, it is that the future pace and direction of economic growth in India will be predicated in no small measure on two factors: from a quantitative perspective, the direct correlation between the GDP/capita and women’s paid work participation rate; and from a qualitative perspective, the direct correlation between GDP/capita and women’s work-hour productivity. We would do well to focus with singularity of purpose on encouraging women in the workforce across sectors, and at once, on gender sensitive functional literacy and skills. This is an opportunity that State and non-State actors must not let pass, to recognise that work cannot be understood without examining how gender is embedded in all social relations; and that the current development path India is on risks leaving women behind.

Together, we must persevere to enable women to transform from Cinderella to Ella.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre)

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