"That's not how it works Miss Katie"
"I never want to get married." "Why's that?", I asked. "Because when you get married your life is over. You have to do EVERYTHING. Cooking, cleaning, housework, taking care of babies.." "Well maybe your husband will help you.", I replied.
(Both laughing at me): "That's not how it works Miss Katie. Not in our cultures."
The conversation above occurred three months ago as I sat weeding a garden with two ten year old girls from Kenya and Liberia. Their resignation at such a young age towards what marriage entails and the role of a woman at home made a very clear impression on me. This has been revalidated over and over again as I observe the role of women here in India and reflect on my time in Jordan.
My last blog post featured the lack of women in public spaces, particularly in the developing countries I've visited. An issue missing from my last piece which I'd also like to discuss, is women in the workplace, both domestically and abroad. It is no secret that a glass ceiling exists for women in the workplace in the U.S and other developed countries.
Despite comprising 51% of the population, women make up only 3% of leadership positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, and advertising. There are only 4 female CEO's of Fortune 500 companies and the US legislature is 90th in the world for female representation. At this rate, women will achieve gender parity in leadership positions within 100-200 years according to the International Labor Organization.
Despite the obvious lack of women in leadership roles, at least women in the U.S. and in many other nations around the world are employed or actively seeking work. This is not the case in India. In India, only 27 percent of women are working or seeking work. This is 11th from the bottom of the world. At least this is better than my previous abroad experience (Jordan) where only 16 percent of women are in the labor force. India's case is especially puzzling because as India's economy continues to grow and women are becoming more educated, women's workforce participation is actually dropping.
It's not that women in Indiado not want to work. Just recently, at one of our training sessions for Wings, we asked the new teachers why they wanted to work for Wings. One woman said her in-laws put pressure on her to stay home and cook, but she refuses because:
"I don't want to stay in the kitchen and make food." "I want to see the world."
This attitude is reflected in national surveys which indicate that over a third of housewives say they would like a job.
Cultural norms of "purity" and the rightful role of a woman in the home, are two concepts that I have come across throughout the developing world, no matter which country or culture it is. When I studied in Jordan, I conducted extensive research on female unemployment and conducted several interviews with women. (Reread my paper and still found it very interesting! Yay me!) What I found was that in rural areas culture severely limited what was deemed suitable and it limited the ability to travel even short distances for better opportunities. Jobs were deemed unacceptable for rural women if they mixed genders and if they worked long hours (aka until 7:00pm). The only jobs that fit appropriately were teaching and nursing. In India, women are relegated to basic agriculture, handicraft manufacturing, and sales/elementary service; industries which have not experienced growth. Women in India are also restricted by similar culture norms of purity and female mobility. They are stuck with lower wage jobs, and the wages they earn do not compensate for the missed housework and home productivity.
In Jordanian urban areas, women often chose to quit their jobs after marrying because their husbands preferred that they stay home and take care of the children. Women feared an imbalance between work and the home. When I asked them what they thought of women who worked full time, one woman remarked: "Why does she even get married if she leaves her husband and children all day?" It's very clear the role of the man as the breadwinner in the family in this quote:
“Maybe I’m a graduated and educated woman, but for me I don’t want to be a woman who has kids and works...for the men in Jordan, every man has to work. Not like the women. The man is the one who pays for everything. He’s responsible for everything.”
So to bring it back to my original quote, the pervasiveness of women's rightful place in the home is not limited to just one country. It's throughout the developing world, but seen especially more so in places like India and Jordan. What's saddening is that gender gaps lower overall workers' income by 26%. Policies that enable females to work, could increase economic growth by up to 2.4%. Nations are doing a disservice to themselves by not enacting policies that improve infrastructure, education, and opportunities for women to join the formal sector.
If you're interested in learning more follow these links.