By: Simren Sekhon
Illustrations by: Sneha Grace
Design by: Angelia Gan
This series will uncover important discussions around the intersections of capitalism and patriarchy, in relation to the Ideas Division’s theme each month. The aim herein is to nuance and highlight the cost women around the world have to bear for the very fact of their gender. As discourses toward female empowerment have emerged globally, the weight of capitalism’s impact in creating material and financial costs to womanhood are often undermined. This series hopes to start necessary conversations to empower change.
In November, WU takes upon itself questions and discussions surrounding representation in a myriad of forms and across systems. No doubt, the intersection between Capitalism & Patriarchy are systems that we need to interrogate. Questions here are not just to do with whether women are represented in the workplace but rather, whether their mental, social, economic and psychological loads in the private sphere are comprehensively taken into account.
In this discussion, we unpack the feminisation of domestic work and what that has meant in creating gender inequality. We also explore what being a housewife means – and why mainstream discourse undermining its value blinds us to the inequality at play.
Commane asserts that the separation of household chores and family responsibilities, often seen to exist within the feminine sphere, is representative of a “social order based on a sexual division of labour”. The mainstream distribution of tasks between men and women –where women are expected to maintain devotion to the domestic (private) sphere, and men to devote their efforts to economically-productive (public) activities – creates a distinct division of responsibility. By definition, work within the domestic sphere, is referred to as ‘care work’, and includes the following: chores, household duties, childcare, care of elderly and familial duties etc.
Take a look at your own home. Is a particular parent assumed responsible for the home? What is their gender? More often than not, the answer to that is likely to be that homes are assumed the responsibility of the mother (which in itself is a heteronormative assumption but we will circle back to that discussion in detail at a later stage). The insinuation is that between men and women, gendered division of responsibility within and outside of the home is ‘natural’ when in reality, it has been constructed to appear natural. We must recognise that when “natural differences” are exaggerated in their construction to this extent, there is likely a socioeconomic relationship of inequality hiding behind the discourse.
Materially, this has resulted in a hierarchy of activities that penetrate capitalism’s way of valuing work. The ‘masculine’ is attributed a higher value than the ‘feminine’ (i.e. domestic labour). Critically, this works on the assumption that what is seen to be ‘feminine’ work in taking care of the home, is not actually productive for the economy. What then is the economic value to ‘women’s work’?
To be honest, I don’t have an exact answer for you. Why? It is hard to put value to something that within the bounds of capitalism and patriarchy, has thus far been rendered invisible.
Domestic work has never really been considered in monetary value, and thus is deemed ‘unpaid work’: an invisibility which in itself acts to undermine the weight women are expected to carry daily. The argument that ‘women’s work’ is less productive to men’s is wholly invalid. As an approximation, in 1995, the UNDP estimated that women’s contribution to the global economy in the private sphere was 11 trillion dollars. Compared to the global productivity averaged to be 23 trillion dollars at the time, this is significant. With the global population having grown over the past 25 years, this value has undoubtedly increased, necessitating that women’s contribution to the economy be accounted for in monetary terms.
Unpaid Care & the Working Woman
The unjust load of unpaid care work continues to be the main barrier that prevents women from getting into, remaining in and progressing in the labour force. In 2018, 606 million working-age women surveyed said so explicitly – with only 41 million men claiming they were not in the labour force for the same reason. Despite an increase in women pursuing higher education globally, the global gender gap in employment rates remain among highly educated women: for the very same reason that unpaid caregiving responsibilities prevent paid employment opportunities.
Let’s then add on the following fact. Remember when we discussed how women remain underpaid across institutions of employment last month? To put things into perspective, let’s add the two realities up:
> 11 trillion dollars of unpaid work (76.2% of which is
carried out by women) + women underpaid by
up to 20-30% across institutions of employment
This inequality is not representative of the functioning of the systems in which we exist. As a matter of fact, the domestic sphere is foundational in that it reproduces and sustains human capital (i.e. the workforce that sustains our economy). Its function is fundamental to the existence of capitalism. Yet, it's undermining is critical to the existence of patriarchy. To put it explicitly, “the capitalist system feeds on a pre-existing system of oppression – patriarchy – and on the other...enables capitalists to manage the entire workforce to their own profit”.
If we are to move forward from a system that hinges women’s economic empowerment only from a duty to also remain devoted to the home, we must revolutionise our understanding of work in the domestic sphere. Currently, in the past 20 years, the gender gap in the time devoted to unpaid care responsibilities has only ‘balanced out’ by 7 minutes/day – continuing on this trajectory would mean that “it will take 210 years to close the gender gap in unpaid care work”. So, perhaps we’d be best to hope that our great grandchildren may see some equality on this front? I certainly hope we can do better.
As we work to change this reality, let us not assume that if a woman is working, she is free from her otherwise ‘feminine’ duties and so, equal. One of the biggest challenges for women who work at paid jobs is to have work-family balance. Firstly, the undermining of care work thus far has meant that working mothers spend more time on work as well as household labour, perpetuating a largely unsustainable daily routine. Secondly, they are then also more likely to not have access to workplace policies that include family and medical leave, workplace flexibility and affordable childcare. This is not to say that men’s careers don’t suffer if they choose to take leave for their family but as it stands, is an issue that disproportionately affects women. To rectify this wholeheartedly would require that all genders’ right and responsibility to family be assumed equally, and accounted for within institutions of employment and in public policy.
In fact, the assumption that being a working woman is our gateway to independence has meant that the role of a housewife/stay-at-home-mum is looked down upon – so much so that many housewives find labelling themselves as such “too embarrassing”. Across the world, people assume housewives are “old fashioned and an economic burden to society" In empowering our conceptions towards change, we must better represent this role in conversations of empowerment. In doing so, this piece has aimed to show that the work of a housewife is not to be undermined and incredibly valuable. We cannot deprive any person, regardless of gender, of appreciation and value simply because they choose to dedicate their efforts to the private sphere. They have a voice and a right to be celebrated as such – as long as it was their choice to be there in the first place.
Moving Forward: Changing the Collective Conscience
Gender gaps both at home and in the workplace need to be addressed. This is to say that until we turn our attention to the home, where gender inequality remains deeply protected by patriarchal social norms, we will have an “incomplete picture of the problem and incomplete solutions for addressing” inequality perpetuated by the capitalist system.
Secondly, systemic change of capitalist structures can work to enable greater equality – so that unpaid care work is not the reason women feel pressured to stay at home or are unable to balance a working life. To create paid jobs out of care work is a task that would result in 475 million jobs by 2030 – an investment that would also allow countries to reach several targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Currently, most women in care work are migrants and work in the informal economy, under poor conditions and for low pay. This necessitates “sweeping changes in care, macroeconomic, social protection, labour and migration policies”. Material efforts to make this happen are yet to be seen in any given country in the world.
To start off on this path, let us wholeheartedly celebrate Housewives Day today (3rd November)!
We need to put value into the work that goes into a home. The collective conscience needs to recognise that the economic value of being a housewife starts within the home and extends beyond it – and that being a housewife has material and social value that is worth commemorating. The priority needs to be on creating a system where individuals are able to make the choice of either dedicating themselves to the domestic sphere, being able to earn a living via care work or working in traditionally capitalist structures. If this priority is not set, gender equality across public and private spheres remain but a dream.