At a recent Takshashila roundtable, I met Shruti Rajagopalan and we discussed the challenges faced by working women in detail. An enriching conversation, Shruti provided various insights such as looking at the female labour force participation as an inferior good. As the household income increases, the demand amongst households to send the women to work reduces and is substituted with women focusing only on household chores. Reasons as Shruti pointed out varied from lack of household help to the increasing pressures of being a working mother. The conversation brought out an interesting insight: the biggest problem with reducing household chores for women is that it is a bundled good.
What is commonly referred to as “household work” contains a bunch of varied tasks like cooking, cleaning, stocking food, managing the assets at the house, managing vendors and neighbors, etc. A set of two or more goods or services when sold or consumed together are called bundled products. Due to the bundled nature of the products, it is difficult to create specific markets for individual subsets within the bundle. For instance, it is difficult to break down the household tasks such that separate agents manage vendors and assets at the house. The closest we have come to distributing the tasks is still within the household unit and yet to create a market where external agents that can be hired for it.
Each of the tasks under “household work” would cost a certain amount to the household. Hence, when a household reaches a certain income, instead of hiring an external agent, the household substitute the cost by letting go of the income earned by the female in the house. Only two chores have been unbundled till date- cooking and cleaning. The exclusive nature of the tasks and clear job description has helped in building both demand and supply for these chores. Hence, being able to unbundle the tasks would help households to outsource the chores as the income increases rather than substituting it with the income earned by the women.
The other obvious solution is to reduce the pay gap between men and women such that the income earned by women are not dispensable enough to be substituted for household chores.
More than a source of empowering women, creating a market for household chores would help solve the increasing job crisis in India. We need to create 20 million jobs per year in order to cater to the people entering the workforce and the disguised unemployment in the agriculture sector. One of the ways to generate these new jobs would create a services market for household chores. As per the study was done by Bela Bandyopadhyaya, and Hilary Standing in the paper “Women’s Employment and the Household-Some Findings from Calcutta”, high-income families create 1.5 jobs per household for the child and household care (full time and a part-time employee). As most of the domestic care is under the purview of the women in the house, each working women helps increase the household income and generates jobs for a cook, a housekeeper, a cleaner and for general domestic work.
As I unravel the giant problem of declining female labour force participation rate in India, I have realised that social mindsets play an integral part in keeping the status quo intact. Hence, the change in the viewpoint towards household chores and the distribution of the agency would only improve as the social narratives are altered. Until then, making it easier for women to chose between staying at home and working should be a step in the right direction.