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Burden of care work: Gender's impact on the wage gap

ByHindustan Times
Oct 17, 2023 07:04 PM IST

Authors-Pooja Gupta, senior consultant and lead, strategic communications and Harshika Tripathi, communications assistant, Policy and Development Advisory Group

In 1989, Claudia Goldin became the first woman to be given tenure in the economics department at Harvard University. Fast-forward to 2023, she became the third woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize for her research on gender’s influence on the United States labour market and why the wage gap exists. Her study looked at nearly two centuries of data about women in the workforce and the implication of motherhood on the gender pay gap in an environment where the bulk of the pay gap shows up with the birth of the first child. Her findings showed that women, who have held historical accountability for care work at home, such as housework, and caring for children, elderly or sick family members, tended to choose more flexible jobs and professions in order to have time off for the other care tasks.

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This is one of several inequities which has created a structural barrier for women against joining high-paying opportunities that has caused the gender pay gap, even in the same profession. In this article, we want to focus on how the overburden of performing care work for families and households has become a longstanding hurdle for women and has resulted in their abysmal participation in the labour market. But why is it important for women to be a part of the labour force? And, to what extent can government aid be part of this emancipation? India has one of the lowest rates of women’s labour force participation rates globally, with only 29.4% female workforce. Jobs and employment are often the key prospect towards achieving economic independence and employment benefits such as pensions and savings for women. To ensure equitable rights and opportunities for women, it is necessary to make sure that these hindrances lead to success.

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As per Goldin, women tend not to choose “greedy” jobs, which refers to work where double the effort often results in more than double the pay but has little ambit for flexibility or time off from work. She attributed this partly to the unequal distribution of care work being born by women, who tend to self-segregate themselves by choosing work which has more flexible working hours but lesser pay. This is what she calls ‘couple inequity’ or the tendency of heterosexual couples to have a structure where men go for more greedy jobs and women go for more flexible jobs in order to cater to the additional care work. While similar realities exist within same-sex couples as well, she argues that the latter don’t give rise to gender inequality.

Professor Goldin's insights have been dubbed as having "vast societal implications". Her contributions provide an invaluable blueprint for policymakers worldwide to address the deeply entrenched gender inequities in the labour market. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), unpaid care work is estimated to be one of the major barriers to women’s entry into the labour force. In India, conversations about recognising unpaid care work have been in the public sphere for many years and the nation’s first Time-Use Survey (TUS) found that women between ages 15 and 59 years spend the majority of their waking hours on unpaid work compared to men who spend a majority of their day in paid employment across both urban and rural areas. It was found that the contribution of women from rural areas was almost eight times more than men, and for women in urban areas, it was almost nine times more than men in a day. This disproportionately means that women’s participation in economic activities has a high opportunity cost due to the pay required for substituting this work by paying hired help.

And this is a reality at all levels of society. In 2023, India saw government schemes that either gave or promised monetary compensation for the recognition of unpaid care work performed by women. In Tamil Nadu, the government announced its welfare program to grant monthly assistance of 1,000 to women heads of families as recognition of their housework. This brings up certain questions such as, is 1,000 a fair valuation of their unpaid labour? Is the government helping push forth the redistribution of unpaid care work being done by women? Does this move actually mitigate the gender biases and patriarchal norms which have shoved the expectation of care work on women? While being important and complex questions, the overarching response to all these questions is no. By having policies and schemes that cement patriarchal values, they tell women that this work will remain their responsibility. Having such tokenistic “inclusive” policies doesn’t reduce the gender divide because the redistribution of work between men and women never takes place. To move away from this inequitable reality, it is imperative that as a society we change the perspective that determines who performs unpaid care tasks. Using a narrative that women’s greater emotional feelings and inborn caring nature as a weapon against their financial and social independence cannot be solved by surface-level policies and tokenistic measures. Progressing into a future that champions voices like Professor Goldin's, who challenge the status quo, we must build upon a new narrative that does not gender care tasks and pushes forth for the redistribution of such work among heterosexual couples. At the State level, government policies have to push for locally accessible and affordable childcare centres as well as provide equal and sufficient maternity and paternity leaves to their workers. This can make it possible for women to also go for higher paying jobs that require more time investment and gain employment benefits such as long-term investments, savings, pensions, and healthcare insurance, among others.

This article is authored by Pooja Gupta, senior consultant and lead, strategic communications and Harshika Tripathi, communications assistant, Policy and Development Advisory Group

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