The Unspoken Burden: Why We Celebrate But Don’t Support Working Women

by | May 30, 2024 | Gender, Women Matters | 0 comments

The image of the modern working woman is ubiquitous: a master juggler, effortlessly keeping career, home, children, and relationships all spinning in perfect harmony.  We hail her as an inspiration, a testament to female strength. Yet, beneath the surface of admiration lies a troubling narrative: the persistent question of whether women can truly “have it all.”

This very question exposes the real issue, the elephant in the room we’re failing to address. We celebrate the working woman but rarely examine the unequal distribution of labor that underpins this supposed feat.  Who is truly doing the juggling? Who shoulders the invisible burden of household chores and childcare?  The conversation about work-life balance remains incomplete until we acknowledge the systemic imbalance within families.

The Double Burden

The gendered division of labor pertains to how each society allocates tasks among its members based on socially defined gender roles. Traditionally, this means the woman looks after the home and family, and the man engages in paid work to provide for the family. In modern societies where women engage in paid work to contribute to household income, men do not always do their fair share in looking after the household. Instead, the woman takes on a double burden: paid as well as unpaid work becomes her domain. Globally, women dedicate around three hours more than men to unpaid domestic work. These women are expected to fulfill both paid employment responsibilities and unpaid caregiving duties. This necessitates women’s participation in both the formal and informal economies.

Women are increasingly engaged in paid employment, contributing financially through full-time, part-time, or freelance work across various sectors. This pursuit of economic independence goes hand-in-hand with the expectation to manage a significant share of unpaid care work within the household. From cooking and cleaning to childcare, elder care, and other domestic tasks, this invisible labor demands considerable time and can be physically and emotionally taxing.  

Research has found that women who engage in the drudgery of unpaid labor are often more stressed or fatigued. The lack of time off from unpaid work can lead to the development of depression and anxiety which affects the woman’s productivity and ability to take care of herself. As compared to men who work outside the home, women who work outside the home have much more perceived stress due to the double burden.

The narrative surrounding the double burden often glorifies women’s ability to single-handedly manage paid work and domestic responsibilities.  But doing everything is neither inspirational nor empowering:

By placing the onus solely on women’s resilience and hardwork,  we neglect talking about the accountability needed from male partners.  This focus on women’s capacity to “do it all” distracts from the need to address the root cause: a system that undervalues men’s participation in household chores and childcare, and in India’s case, disregards the additional pressures placed on women by extended families.

Equitable Distribution of Household Labour

The stats are revealing: men do not do their share of household work. Even accounting for the fact that men work more outside the house, a survey by the National Statistical Office paints a stark picture.  According to the Time Use in India – 2019 survey, a whopping 84% of women’s working hours are spent on unpaid activities like cooking and cleaning, compared to a mere 6.1% of men participating in even a little bit of cooking each day. This imbalance goes beyond just time availability – the survey suggests deeper societal issues at play.

Ashwini Deshpande, a professor of economics at Ashoka University, emphasizes that in many households where these norms are rigidly upheld, there are distinct gendered spaces delineated within the home. If a man were to even enter traditionally female-dominated spaces like the kitchen, it would often be perceived as odd or unacceptable. 

To truly support working women and achieve gender equality, we must shift the focus from celebrating individual resilience to addressing the systemic issues that underlie the unequal distribution of household labor. This requires challenging traditional gender roles, promoting shared responsibility within families, and creating supportive policies and environments that value and prioritize both paid and unpaid work. 

This is where men must step up.  True gender equality isn’t achieved by simply applauding women who defy the odds. It requires a fundamental shift in how we view household labor. Men need to be active partners, sharing the responsibility for chores and childcare. This isn’t a favor – it’s a fundamental aspect of partnership and a necessary step towards a more balanced life for everyone.

To address the unequal distribution of household labor and promote gender equality, a multi-pronged approach is essential. This involves implementing policies that support work-life balance, challenging traditional gender roles through education and awareness campaigns, fostering a cultural shift that values men’s involvement in household chores and childcare, encouraging open communication within families, providing training and skill development opportunities, and empowering women economically and socially. By combining these strategies, we can create a more equitable society where both men and women share the responsibility for unpaid work and have equal opportunities to pursue their aspirations.

Only then can we truly empower women to thrive in all aspects of their lives.

The author, Riti Aggarwal, is currently pursuing a B.A. in Sociology at Ashoka University and is a writer and avid reader. She is passionate about sociopolitical reform and gender equity.

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