Women’s increased participation in the paid workforce is widely seen as an important remedy for various social ills such as poverty. But their ability to engage in paid work is obstructed by pre-existing domestic burdens, which extract a heavy toll on women’s time and energy. There is a wide literature documenting women’s work for households and their strategies for managing the time required to accomplish it, but this scholarship tends to position work/life balance as an individual-level time management issue. Women are expected to come up with personal strategies to “have it all.” Drawing on ethnographic research with low income working women from rural India, Goodman and Kaplan’s research finds that women’s ability to engage in paid work outside the home is contingent on the availability of household members to take up some of their domestic responsibilities. Examining the part that other household members play in facilitating women’s workforce participation shows that it shouldn’t be seen as an individual balancing act but rather as a household negotiation, which has important implications for scholars and policy makers alike.
Research suggests that this stagnation is in part structured by norms that designate domestic work as women’s responsibility.
Women’s increased labour force participation is seen as a crucial avenue to improved GDP at the national and global levels. Accordingly, governments, businesses, and non-profits have channeled attention and funding towards initiatives aimed at pulling women into the paid workforce. Despite their efforts, women’s economic participation has stagnated in developed and developing countries alike. Research suggests that this stagnation is in part structured by norms that designate domestic work as women’s responsibility. In order to enter the paid labour force, women must find ways to reduce the demands of household labour. But the options available for doing so vary according to women’s situations.
Western, professional women—the focus of most management scholarship—sometimes outsource housework or seek more flexible work opportunities in an effort to balance the dual burdens of office and household work. Yet, even in Western elite contexts, such strategies have a limited impact on women’s ability to work. Therefore, scholarship and policy must move beyond its elite focus in order to help organizations and policymakers craft better work-life balance policies. New insights can be mined from examining how low-income women and those located in non-Western settings manage the heavy burden of domestic work in order to join the paid labour force.
This paper draws on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the rural northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, as well as 52 interviews with working women and their family members to investigate how non-Western, working women can engage in formal work despite their onerous domestic work burdens. Household labour is especially demanding in this context, where income and infrastructure shortages limit women’s ability to rely on labor-saving devices, such as washing machines and piped water. Indeed, for many women in this context, household labor extends to farming activities and animal husbandry. How do women in this context enter paid work and still complete the time consuming, labour-intensive tasks necessary for their family’s survival?
Low-income workers in western contexts are also often unable to afford privatized childcare or outsource housework. Such workers therefore tend to rely on relatives for various forms of assistance.
The authors discovered that given the heavy burden of household work women faced, their ability to engage in formal work was contingent on the availability of household members willing to help free up women’s time by taking on some of their domestic tasks. Thus, women’s formal work outside the home was not an individual decision but a family project. In order for women to be able to take on jobs for pay, they had to negotiate new divisions of labour with their families. Family negotiations were driven by several considerations, including: the household’s need for money, their interest in securing useful social connections via women’s work relationships, and women’s ability to compel relatives to accept new divisions of labour.
These findings reflect patterns observable in other more developed world contexts. Low-income workers in Western contexts are also often unable to afford privatized childcare or outsource housework. Such workers therefore tend to rely on relatives for various forms of assistance. In the US, for instance, low-income workers are more likely to live in extended family households so that they can pool resources and secure familial assistance with domestic work. And, for elite professional workers in heterosexual relationships, it highlights the need for the male spouse to contribute more fully to household demands. Thus, this study outlines the importance of supportive family members in enabling women’s wage work.
- Reconceptualize ideas of work-life balance—Given the importance of family support for women’s ability to participate in wage work, it suggests that work-life balance should be reconceptualized as a family problem, rather than an individual one. For companies, this means providing cultural support for men to take the time for parental leave and using flexible work practices so that they can participate in household care. For families, this suggests that women can move away from feeling they need to come up with personal strategies for “balance” and instead work with her family to negotiate sharing of tasks.
- Reconceptualize ideas of unpaid labour—The research underscores the value of household labor. Tasks women undertake in their homes may be unpaid but are nevertheless crucial to their family’s survival. Thus, this research demonstrates the need for scholars and policymakers to embrace an expanded definition of work, one that considers household work as economically significant, worthy of inclusion in various national and global measures of productivity.
- Support and extend familial assistance— This research suggests that any policy aimed at increasing women’s participation in wage work can only succeed if it finds ways to reduce women’s domestic burdens. One option for doing so is to support universal childcare, including by allowing people to use childcare subsidies for care by relatives.
Research brief prepared by: