Why Do Indian Women End Up Performing Unpaid Labour Over Paid Work

Women often internalise the idea that it is their job to perform household chores and they must prioritise it above employment- which is seen as a privilege.

Yamini Pustake Bhalerao
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What Homemakers Want For Womens Day
Can a woman ever catch a break from work? Technically no, if you too believe that the labour which goes unaccounted or unpaid for also counts as work. Working women and homemakers across the country put in hours of unpaid effort into managing their homes- and mind you, by managing we do not mean home improvement, but the simple act of keeping it running on a day-to-day basis. If they have to, they trade their paychecks for a "well-kept" home.

We seldom talk about what it takes to keep a house running - decluttering cabinets, washing utensils, sorting piles of dried and washed clothes, arranging them in cupboards, dusting the television cabinet almost every day, clearing the cobwebs every week, washing the foot mats every month, and then there's the dreaded Diwali cleaning that must be performed annually. Does the list ever end? The bigger question however is, why do women end up with a major chunk of these household chores? Why is male participation so nominal and selective? Why do women choose to perform unpaid labour over paid work, when they are forced to choose?

According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, on how men and women use their time, it was found that 81.2 percent women participate in unpaid domestic services. On average, women spend four hours 59 minutes each day performing these chores. On the other hand, male participation in domestic services stood at 26.1 percent. Men spent one hour 37 minutes on unpaid work at home.

The picture flips for paid work in India. According to the same survey, men also spend seven hours 39 minutes a day to perform paid work, whereas women only spend five hours 33 minutes. The participation rate for paid employment is 57.3 percent for men and 18.4 percent for women. What this data tells us is that men are perform more work that'll be rewarded monetarily, whereas women are stuck with performing unpaid labour.

So why does this happen? And is it possible that women tend to see unpaid labour as their duty, while seeing paid work as a privilege?

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Conditioning that brings guilt

Man brings home the bacon, woman cooks food and puts it on the table. It is a man's job to change a light bulb or fix a broken tap, a woman how to wash clothes the best. "Give it to your mom, she knows what to do," I remember seeing this meme about washing instructions on a t-shirt. That's how ingrained gendered roles are in our heads. Due to this, women tend to see household chores as their responsibility and men bear the pressure to be breadwinners of a household. Neither of this does us any good. If roles were to be exchanged here, each of us would still be miserable. Having said that, money brings your power, it puts you in a dominant position in a household. You get to call the shots, because you are the one paying bills. So even if men and women work for (roughly) similar number of hours, the one who gets paid for labour is the one who earns respect. Unpaid labour, on the other hand, is a thankless and unending job.

Let us face it, no one wants to get stuck with unpaid labour, but someone's gotta do it. This is exactly what happens to women in most Indian households. The house needs to be kept clean and functioning, if everyone shakes their hands off the job, what does one do. Since we have been conditioned to believe that household chores are a women's duty, the guilt eats at our conscious, no matter how progressive our outlook is.

Women sigh and pick up the broom to remove those cobwebs because the guests are on the way and the husband doesn't care about them. But what will the guests say? What impression will they have of her? What will they tell other people about her house keeping skills?

No one can do it better


Remember that "give it to your mom" meme I mentioned above? It also speaks about how the "expertise" narrative reinforces two sets of stereotypes in one go. Women not only believe that it is their duty to perform certain chores, but also that no one else can do it better than them. Be it giving newborns their daily massage or grinding up that special spice mix that gives your chicken curry an extra kick- there are some, rather many chores that women simply do not trust men with.

Since we have a limited amount of time and energy at our disposal every day, women choose fulfilling their gendered duties over taking home a paycheck. Paid labour for women is either a privilege reserved for those who have a helping hand at home or an unavoidable choice when the man of the house is out or work or doesn't earn enough to make ends meet. If a woman doesn't fall into either of the category- she has a tough choice in front of her. What she needs instead is a helping hand instead. If men are encouraged to perform household chores, that too without the privilege to pick what they like and ditch what they don't, the playing field will be eventually levelled, enabling women to seek opportunities to perform paid work.

Views expressed are the author's own.

household chores Unpaid Labour