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Future Development

Does it really matter if female labor force participation is miscounted?

Recently, Surjit Bhalla took me to task for (supposedly) using female labor force participation (FLFP) as an indicator of women’s status. He argues that FLFP measurement reflects cross-national differences in definitions of work rather than the fundamental situation of women. Women’s work in home production, for example, is not counted in FLFP. Therefore, female labor force participation is underestimated.

In a purely statistical sense, he is right. Home production is indeed undercounted in FLFP. For example, when West Bengal’s rate of female labor force participation is expanded to include all economic activities that enable households to save expenditure, it rises from 28 percent to 52 percent.

But if we’re interested in patriarchy, we must distinguish between different kinds of work.

Not every kind of work is emancipatory. Ethnographies, focus groups, and surveys tell us that rural women’s contributions are scarcely considered “work” by men, and sometimes, even by women themselves. Women’s farm work does not guarantee women’s esteem, autonomy, or protection from violence. Even if northern Indian women work long days harvesting crops, pounding grain, and fetching firewood, they still eat last. As a 19th century Haryana saying goes, “jeore se nara ghisna hai” (women as cattle bound, working and enduring all).

Furthermore, we must differentiate between unpaid contributions to the household and paid work in the public sphere. When women work for family-owned enterprises, they remain under the control of kin. Market, factory, and office employment offer far greater possibilities for female solidarity. Through paid work in the public sphere, women gain esteem, build diverse friendships, discover more egalitarian alternatives, collectively criticize patriarchal privileges, and become emboldened to resist unfairness.

Paid work in the public sphere is counted under FLFP. So, while FLFP mismeasurement does erase women’s valuable contributions to their households, it correctly tracks the kinds of work which provide pathways toward female emancipation and solidarity.

Figure 1. Percentage of women who say men eat first

Figure 1. Percentage of women who say men eat first

Note: Map made by author with data from https://ihds.umd.edu/.

Women’s share of paid work in the public sphere also varies significantly across the world. This is both a cause and consequence of the global heterogeneity in gender relations.

Table 1 below shows how regions differ in terms of “Economic Participation and Opportunity.” This incorporates gender gaps in labor force participation, wages for similar work, earned income, share of senior positions and professionals).

Table 1. World Economic Forum global gender gap, regional performance, 2022

Table 1. World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap, Regional Performance, 2022

Source: World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2022.

South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa are all caught in what I call “the patrilineal trap.” Women’s share of paid work in the public sphere remains low because available earnings are too low to compensate for the loss of male honor. Thus, it is men who go out into the world, run family businesses, and migrate to new economic opportunities. Women are more typically secluded, steeped in ideals of self-sacrifice, dependent on patriarchal guardians. The few women who encroach on men’s turf are vulnerable to patriarchal backlash: harassment and violence. As home-based South Asian women struggle to forge friendships, they remain beholden to patriarchal ideals.

Figure 2. Patriarchal ideologies in South Asia persist

Figure 2. Patriarchal Ideologies in South Asia Persist

Source: World Bank, 2022, using data from World Values Survey.

East Asia was once similarly patriarchal, but job-creating economic growth enabled women to pursue their own emancipation. Daughters gained “face” (respect and social standing) by remitting earnings, supporting their families, and showing filial piety just like sons. By migrating to cities, women made friends, bemoaned unfair practices, and discovered more egalitarian alternatives. Emboldened by peer support, women came to expect and demand better—in dating, domesticity, and industrial relations. Mingling freely in cities, young adults increasingly dated before marriage, chose their own partners, then established nuclear households. They liberated themselves from parental control. This is a direct consequence of paid work in the public sphere.

In summary, attempts to correctly enumerate women’s home-based work may please statisticians, but tell us little about patriarchy. Paid work in the public sphere is always counted and heterogeneity in this regard reflects substantive differences in gender relations around the world.

Photo credit: Alice Evans.

The Future Development blog informs and stimulates debate on key sustainable development issues within and across all countries.

Now hosted by the Center for Sustainable Development, this blog was originally launched in September 2013 by the World Bank and the Brookings Institution in an effort to hold governments more accountable to poor people and offer solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Continuing this goal, Future Development was re-launched in January 2015 at brookings.edu. In the ensuing years, the blog’s scope evolved in parallel with ongoing international policy debates and was formally updated in November 2022 to focus on broader challenges of sustainable development around the world.

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