As March draws to a close, I think back on two key women and work-related hashtags that were dominant on my social media feed all month. There was IWD and there was this other rather viral campaign, which used the tags IAmWorking and GettingtoEqual. The latter had the theme of work at its core, and women shared what work meant to them and tagged other women to share their stories. I almost ended up writing about myself on the suggestion of another friend, but then I did not, out of a mix of confusion and laziness. I started thinking about an aspect common to many of the IAmWorking stories. These women were working, but their work was unpaid work, or paid very little. How was it a way of GettingtoEqual, then, and what really was the Equal all about? Despite the unpaid work posts, there were no housewives claiming the hashtag as fit for their story of work. This caused me not a small level of confusion.
For a vast number of us who have careers or jobs when we marry, marriage leads to, first, the taking on of a double-shift of work – at home and outside – and sooner or later, to dropping out of paid work outside the home to stick with one work domain – the home. The data on leaking pipeline of mid-level women in the workforce is telling in this regard. We don’t stop working, when we shift domains of work, but the reward system undergoes an abrupt change.
Clearly, evaluation criteria differ for the work domains of home and outside. And so do the rewards. While almost all adult humans work, it is usually only women who work full-time at home, and even when they work outside their home, they still work many more hours at home than do men. Work in the outside world has far bigger financial worth, and housework (including caregiving, active parenting and childcare) has intangibles like contentment touted as their big reward. While so many changes have come about in how the law looks at marriage, and at women’s property rights, what hasn’t changed is the difference in how the world looks at and rewards two clearly gendered and separate domains of work.
We assume that the answer to this discriminatory situation, this lack of financial empowerment for domestic work and for the women who do the work, is that all women must work outside the home. I was taught to think so, and I teach the same to my daughter. But the fact is, I also see many chinks in this argument, and today I want to call them out loud.
I was working full-time, years ago, and seemed to have it all, balancing my marital home and parenthood. And then suddenly, a series of crises made it imperative to make a choice to stay at home. The thing I wonder about is, was it really a choice? It was a fait accompli that life served up. It wasn’t quite a matter of choosing. It was a matter of coping, with the greater good in mind. It was a choice between a career outside the home and the safety and well-being of my children, if one insists on still seeing it in terms of choice. It meant financial disempowerment was the price for the safety of my children. Is that an equation anyone can ever balance? When the family kitty shrunk, from a double income to one, was it fair to demand that the children’s father make a provision for putting aside a part of his salary as my ‘allowance’ in addition to household expenses and basics like food, clothes, etc.?
I had thought I was working as an equal. Suddenly, out of the blue, I was not quite equal. I was the one who, when asked by strangers at parties as to what I did, started responding with ‘Nothing.’ As though it could ever be true for anyone! But people did seem to accept my ‘nothing’ as a valid, true descriptor for the nature of my work. Did my work in the home not deserve more? And did I not deserve some financial power for the work of helping build a family and a home, especially since it was my body that gave birth and fed the children of that family? Without money of my own, could I feel even remotely empowered, never mind how much my husband ‘allowed’ me to spend
Does all work count as work only when it performed outside the domestic sphere in the modern world? Has the time come to change the paradigm of work and how we reward it? Can we imagine treating domestic work as serious work, on par with every other kind of officially recognised work, and as a contributor to the GDP? Could we perhaps create ESOPS like value for such work that could be encashed? Perhaps that would be the way to ensure that all who do such work be seen and counted as real workers, with real jobs.
Perhaps then IAmWorking could be the hashtag housewives would use with as much pride as other workers.