Balancing work and home life is a crucial decision all working couples must make. But we all know women do most of the heavy lifting at home – and this is not because they prefer it or are biologically “more suitable to care” (yes, many people still believe that).
Rather, this is rooted in their lack of “fall- back options”. The lack of financial independence, parental support, inheritance and most importantly agency, means a women rarely gets to choose between employment and house work.
Having limited resources to fall back upon means a woman has little ground to stand on when bargaining with her husband to do less work in the home, or for her husband to be more involved in childcare, and/or to compromise on his career for hers (the opposite is the norm).
So while it might seem that we can ‘solve inequality’ by getting women to access these resources, studies digging deeper into the way in which various resources translate into power for a woman have often found counter-intuitive results.
Here are at least 5 important resources women need and the battles they must fight to access the job market:
1) The Working- Not- Working Catch 22
Having a job is a good way for women, especially married women, to increase their say in household decision-making.
However, since it is culturally not the role women have played, women who do want to work have to convince their families that getting a job is worthwhile for not only themselves, but for the entire family, and especially for their children. Unfortunately, one of the only reasons considered worthwhile are extreme financial constraints, and thus a large share of those ‘allowed to work’ in India come from socioeconomically weak backgrounds.
Many educated and economically well-off Indian women don’t work because of the belief that the woman staying at home implies her husband is doing well at work.
Not only does this belief mean many women never have the opportunity to have careers, but it also means young men are often unduly burdened with the task of financially supporting their entire families.
2) The Catch-22 of Earning More Than Your Husband
Earning more can reduce workload at home, but maybe not if you earn more than your husband.
For working women, how much they earn – specifically in comparison to their husbands, can influence their bargaining power. Intuitively we would think that the more a woman earns the more she can do what she wants. However, a study found that it is a bit more complex than that as the findings corroborate with said intuition only till a point.
When a woman’s earning increases to equal that of her husband’s, the husband is more likely to take on more household chores. However, once a woman starts earning more than her husband, his contribution to household work starts decreasing again. It is possible that the male ego plays a role here in making women take on a double burden of both paid and unpaid work.
The old adage most Indian women have probably heard – of never marrying men who earn less than them – sadly finds some verification.
3) Inheriting Power and Overcoming Subservience
Another form of financial backing that can help a woman increase her bargaining power is having an inheritance. However, as India has historically been a patrilineal society where such resources have been directed to the male household head (with few exceptions such as the Khasi community in the North East), very few women are likely to have this resource at their disposal.
More importantly, having an inheritance to be passed on is in itself a privilege and therefore, subject to luck of being born into an economically well-off family. This is important to note because even if we were to change inheritance laws in the country such that assets went to daughters and sons equally, it would be more difficult for women coming from poorer or oppressed-caste households to take advantage of this.
4) More Education Helps, But Marriage Misogyny Continues
More education definitely helps, but marriage market misogyny often comes in the way. Women who are more than – or equally educated compared to their husbands – are more likely to be able bargain their way to a job.
One possible reason for this, is that the more educated a woman, the better (/higher paying) job she would be able to access, which even if not a necessity for the family, might significantly improve the household’s standard of living. There is also evidence suggesting more educated women tend to be ‘‘happier’’ in their family life and less likely to see marriage as “financial security”.
While this seems positive, sometimes more educated women are seen as being more useful in the home as they would be able to manage household responsibilities, and possibly educate their children better.
Further, the crude marriage market in India may see dowry prices fall as a woman’s education level increases as long as it’s lower than the husband’s (though this is up to a certain level because the older you get, the higher the dowry price).
The assumption here, of course, is that with or without education a woman’s role lies in the home.
5) The Power of Confidence
On a slightly different note, a huge determinant of bargaining power is confidence, as is the case in any social transaction.
However, for women who must deal with various disadvantages throughout their lives, and who have been taught to be subservient to male family members, being confident in front of their husbands is not easy. A woman is often socialised into believing that it is not her place to disagree with her husband at all, or to demand to be allowed to do things that are not considered the norm.
Many women might never go against the grain, possible because they do not consider themselves to be disadvantaged, when all they’ve ever seen is women who live in similar subservience.
This could be particularly understood in the sphere of employment – in terms of discrimination, the risk of assault, or micro-aggressions.
The MeToo movement has brought to light various ways in which women can be overtly and subtly discriminated against at the workplace. Many women continue to believe that men are the rightful holders of jobs in times when jobs are scarce, due to which several women might have accepted discrimination and/or harassment as part and parcel of having a job/ being in a male sphere.
Women must traverse through life receiving smaller shares of resources compared to men around them, and these disadvantages (severely compounded by caste, class, and geography, etc.) make it difficult for women to access various resources that can help her bargain.
(Karan Singhal (@karansinghal93) works on education policy and urban local governance in Ahmedabad. Nisha Vernekar is a graduate development economics student at SOAS, University of London. They work together on an initiative- Pune Collab -trying to build an NGO database for organisations and individuals in Pune.)