Growing up in the 80s and 90s in urban India, I was surrounded by “working women”. They worked all day, often late into the night, without early departures, weekends, sick leave (!) or paid holidays. To say work was all-encompassing is an understatement. It covered aspects of the home and hearth, preparing meals, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, running errands for school-goers, attending to tasks for office-goers, arranging schedules for the family and so on. And yet, for society at large, these were “non-working” women, the ones that “stayed at home”. Simply put, the housewives. For all its sophistication and complexities, national income accounting could not devise a simple measure to arrive at any value whatsoever for the contributions of these unrecognized, and therefore unpaid, workers.

As a young, eager student of economics, I learnt about proxy variables. My rigorous training taught me to test out theories about alternatives. But not once did it occur to me to run a regression using a proxy for women’s participation in the labour force other than the straightforward time series compiled by the ILO year after year! One of the recent economic discourses in this country has been to lament upon the declining share of women in the workforce (going by its traditional definition), while exploring ways to balance out the gender numbers. This implies that those who work “at home” are in fact, not working.

The narrative today focuses on the creation of “enabling” environments to encourage mothers to return to the workplace. These include on-site creche facilities, flexible hours, retaining seniority after taking maternity leave, “working from home” etc., all in an effort to enhance job security for a segment of the childbearing/working-age population. These policy reforms are certainly welcome for mothers who wish to return to the more formal, i.e. structured labour force after giving birth. However, in effect, they also are a disservice to those who choose to stay back to raise their children and run their households. 

Further, by not acknowledging the vital roles of parents, caregivers and homemakers in the economy, we create an unfortunate and unequal distinction between women going out of the house to work and home workers. It makes these “stay-at-home” unpaid women feel inferior to others who step out and get paid to do so, whilst at the same time paying somebody else (ironically, usually other women) to do the jobs at home. Globally, numerous studies have concluded that children who are breastfed for at least the first 12 months are more successful in later years – “success” being a yardstick of how well one does one’s job. Would therefore the provision of this gold standard in nutrition for babies and infants in the early development years be considered a factor of production in the generation of human capital?

Women at work? PC: Imani. Source:

Some questions come to mind: Why must certain tasks have hidden costs? – be it household chores or childcare which when performed, historically mostly by women, lead to historically, mostly men being “productive” in the workplace. The inherent assumption of taking these tasks for granted and treating them as “free services” creates distortions – what, for example, would happen, if we could assign a fair market value for every job done by a woman at home? Would families become richer? Would countries grow poorer? Who would pay? Would tax-paying citizens and corporations agree to a cash transfer programme benefitting millions of women who would otherwise never receive any form of monetary compensation? 

Neither is there a single answer, nor is it straightforward. Remunerations are based on numerous factors, and while candidates are assessed thoroughly for jobs they apply to, mothers that work as parents create the job for themselves. They may be from diverse educational backgrounds with varying levels of experience – nobody doing the back-breaking work of a parent can ever claim to be “qualified for the job” – we learn along the way, sometimes the hard way! This makes compensation even more complicated in this case. However, one thing is certain: the welfare of a state is incomplete without a vast chunk of its working-age cohort being included as parts in the sum total.

The way forward is to first ask what do women want? Unanimously, the response will be “acknowledgement” further leading to empowerment. 

Gender equality would be better addressed when there is fundamental universal acceptance that all tasks, whether done at home or outside, are work.

How they collectively contribute to the economy is a computational puzzle; the solution to which is certainly not an impossibility. 

I certainly didn’t understand it back then because perhaps, the only way to truly comprehend injustice is to face it yourself. Thirty years later, it is apparent to me that we are hugely underestimating GDP values by not counting the work done by women. It’s not women’s work; it is the work done by women. And it deserves to be valued, for all it is worth.

Shilpa Phadke

Shilpa Phadke is a development sector specialist.

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