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  • Writer's pictureRachana Kadikar

An Inside Look Into Unpaid Labor Disparities: A Survey of Global Indian Households

As many contemporary societies move beyond traditional patriarchal gender specializations, women's fight for equal opportunity and against unfair societal stereotypes continues. One of the largest issues that burdens women around the world is the unequal division of unpaid labor. Unpaid labor is a broad spectrum of household work that one performs without the goal of compensation or benefits. This could include routine housework such as washing the dishes or laundry, shopping for necessary goods, taking care of children and the elderly, and other economically invisible unpaid activities related to maintaining a household.

If women were paid the federal minimum wage for their work, the total global monetary value of unpaid labor by women would sum up to about 10.9 trillion a year, which, in perspective, is an eighth of the 2020 global GDP of 84.54 trillion U.S. dollars. However, this unpaid labor is not a part of GDP calculations, so it remains a largely behind-the-scenes contributor to our economy. For this same reason, the gender disparity of unpaid labor remains a silent issue.

Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that for OECD economies, women spend on average 126.9 minutes more than their male counterparts on unpaid work on a daily basis. India, Turkey, and Portugal have the largest gender gaps of unpaid labor, with Indian women spending on average 300.1 more minutes on unpaid work on a daily basis, and 94.3 more minutes daily on unpaid work and paid work combined.

Ultimately, Indian society is limited by these disparities in unpaid labor due to women’s limited financial and social independence, limited economic prosperity due to a significant portion of the population devoting time and energy toward unpaid labor, and perpetuated stereotypes about mothers’ working productivity. Therefore, it’s crucial that public policymakers and private entities address these disparities in unpaid labor so that globally, Indian society can thrive and grow further, and women’s empowerment can reach new highs.

My interest in this topic stems from my own personal experiences: as a first-generation Indian American woman, I have witnessed the effects of unpaid labor disparities all my life. I internalized beliefs that instead of academic achievement, my role in the family was to humbly take care of others. Seeing the effects of these unpaid work disparities within my own community, I understood the dramatic effects they have on women’s financial independence.

To gain a more thorough understanding of these unpaid labor disparities, I created a brief google form to married people of Indian descent asking them about their unpaid labor distributions. Through this, I hoped to better understand the correlation between upbringings/workforce habits and gendered unpaid labor disparities, as well as hear personal anecdotes for how Indian culture impacted their perceptions of how unpaid labor should be distributed within their households.

In my survey, I first asked for some general demographic information, such as gender, age range (in 10s-e.g. 10-19, 20-29, etc.), and where they currently live to be able to analyze how different demographics respond to the questions.

After getting demographic information and establishing that the individual was a part of my targeted demographic, I began asking about their paid and unpaid work backgrounds. I first asked whether they have a job, and what type of job it’s (e.g. full-time or part-time). I then asked if they had children to get an understanding of how having children impacts the unpaid labor disparities. If yes, did they receive paid time off from work for maternity or paternity leave or leave the workforce.

Studies show that women in the United States with children are paid 4.6% less than women without children, with all qualifications and hours being accounted for, a gap known as the motherhood penalty. In sharp contrast, fathers with children often get paid more than men without children and experience a fatherhood premium. In order to close this pay gap between mothers and fathers, a more equal share of responsibilities should be emphasized within households. This equality within households should have a significant effect on easing the pay gap as stereotypes about motherhood will diminish in the hiring and work processes, and women will spend less time on unpaid household work.

Maternity and paternity leave is also very closely tied to unpaid labor disparities. Paid parental leave has a plethora of benefits for both the parents (especially mothers) as well as the children. It makes it easier for parents to manage work and family, and reduces the chances that a parent will have to leave the labor force (even temporarily) to take on the household tasks.

Afterwards, I asked the participants about how many hours they dedicate to unpaid work (e.g. childcare, eldercare, household chores, shopping, and other unpaid activities done for the sake of maintaining the household) in a day. Then, I asked the participants the same question for their spouse to understand their perception of the unpaid work disparities within their household.

After asking questions about unpaid labor, I asked similar questions about the amount of time dedicated to leisure in a day. A study by Pew Research shows that fathers within the United States typically spend significantly more time in leisure, despite performing less unpaid work. Spending time in leisure can help increase the well-being, workplace productivity, and energy levels of people, meaning it’s important that there’s an equal distribution of leisure time between partners.

I then asked two open ended questions based on their opinions. The first question asked why they believe they perform more or less unpaid labor than their spouse in their household. The second asked about the effects of their upbringing on their perceived role on unpaid labor within their household).

A prominent perpetuator of unpaid labor disparities is discriminatory societal stereotypes and the reinforcement of traditional gender roles in Indian communities. Since much of our world-views are based on what we were exposed to as children, upbringings can have an impact on unpaid labor disparities, especially where women are performing almost all of the unpaid labor. Finally, I asked them if they thought their Indian upbringings or traditional expectations influenced their distribution of household unpaid labor.

I sent out this anonymous survey to as many married Indian people as possible. After a few days, I had accumulated 59 form responses (with no more than one per household). After calculating and analyzing the data, I noticed several trends.

First, Indian women internationally reported on average 2.42 more hours daily of unpaid labor than their male spouses. According to the OECD, women globally perform about 2.11 more hours daily of unpaid labor than their husbands on average, and women in India typically dedicate about 5 more hours daily to unpaid labor, placing the average of 2.42 hours in between the two statistics. This result from my survey shows two things: it confirms that there are significant gender differences in unpaid labor in Indian households, and that Indian households typically have even higher disparities than the global average.

One might argue that the amount of unpaid labor performed by women might be higher since many women dedicate their time to performing unpaid labor within the household instead of the workforce. This claim is valid to the extent that women who don’t work (neither part-time nor full-time) report 3.2 more hours daily than their male counterparts. However, women who specifically work full-time jobs still report 1.46 more hours daily. This shows that even if both spouses are working equally in the workforce, the burden of unpaid labor still falls on women.

A major cause of these gaps comes from Indian stereotypes about women's’ role in the household. Full-time working women who still live in India reported about 3.5 more hours daily than their husbands, while full-time working women currently in America reported about 2.21 more hours daily. Both of these groups grew up in India; however, women who remain in India tend to perform an additional hour of unpaid labor compared to women who immigrated to the United States, emphasizing the effect of Indian communities and expectations on unpaid labor disparities.

To further confirm whether Indian stereotypes and culture play a role in the unpaid labor disparities, I asked participants whether they believed their Indian upbringing and traditional expectations have influenced their distribution of unpaid labor within their household. Over 81% of participants said that Indian culture might have influenced their unpaid labor distribution (see Appendix I), establishing that traditional stereotypes and gender roles have a major influence over these disparities.

When asking participants why they believe they performed more/less unpaid labor than their spouse, I got a variety of responses. Some representative quotes are highlighted in the figure below.

From the above responses, we can see that many brought up either their work requirements and/or traditional gender roles as to why they performed more or less unpaid labor within their own households.

I also asked how their upbringing impacted their opinions on unpaid labor within their households and saw trends of women as role models for performing the majority of unpaid labor within households. Some representative quotes of this second open-ended question are expressed in the figure below.

The above responses demonstrate the importance of role models within their own upbringings: seeing their own mothers and other women in the communities perform nearly all of the unpaid work led them to continue this cycle and expectations within their own current households.

Overall, from this engagement with people of Indian descent/upbringings living in the United States and India, we can conclude several things. First, we know that there is an unpaid work burden on women within Indian households, both in India and in the United States. These disparities directly go against Article 24 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay”, as many women globally aren’t.

A few respondents argued that these unpaid labor disparities exist since men tend to dedicate their time to paid work while women do the unpaid work within households. However, there still exists a burden of unpaid labor on women even among couples who both have full-time jobs. In addition, full-time working couples who live in India typically have higher gaps in unpaid labor than full-time working couples who live in the United States, further demonstrating the impact of Indian culture on unpaid labor pressures. Judging from the open-ended questions, we can see that cultural gender norms and stereotypes and role models perpetuate these disparities.

After analyzing this survey, I see that Indian upbringings influences expectations on women to perform more household unpaid work. Therefore, I would advocate for policymakers to target Indian stereotypes about who should do housework through public and private policies like ad campaigns or gender neutral children’s toys.

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