“My mother does not work”. In country after country, this expression is heard each time someone describes a woman not engaged in paid employment. A recent study by McKinsey, titled “The Power of Parity: How equality for women could drive $ 2 trillion in global growth”, has evidence that every “stay-at-home” woman directly damages a country’s GDP by billions. Its message is that every woman should “work”; India’s GDP could increase by 16 per cent to 60 per cent by the year 2025 if more women participated in the labour force.
For a start, its fundamental premise of women’s “work” and “non-work” is misleading: Non-earning is not the same as non-working, unless people are ill or disabled. As daughters, siblings, wives or mothers, women are mostly employed in full-time work that involves household chores, and production of goods and services not sold in the market and so on. They also perform a swathe of care-giving work besides the rearing of children. The major difference between this work and paid employment is financial compensation.
According to Census 2011, the “non-working” population was around 728.9 million. Of these, 159.9 million individuals (or 96.5 per cent) who stated that “household work” was their main activity were women. Calculations by feminist economists reveal that the worth of women’s unpaid work (calculated with the average of minimum wages for skilled labour in India) approximates 16 lakh crore per annum.
The range of women’s varied skilled non-paid work directly contributes to the economy. By shouldering all these responsibilities, women make all other forms of labour possible.
The study assumes that if men spent more time on domestic labour, thus enabling women to engage in more paid labour, the GDP would rise by the amount of additional paid labour women performed. But if unpaid care work is not included in the GDP, male contributions to the GDP would have to be revised downwards in scenarios where men do a larger share of unpaid domestic work. Feminist economists have argued that this devaluation of women’s productive input into the economy weakens women’s position and creates defective policies. Unless women’s non-market work is monetised and added to the GDP, miscalculations would continue to occur.
Neglect of women’s contribution to our economies as homemakers or care-givers has a common sense-like acceptance. In India, claims for a non-earning woman’s accident or death are often of negligible value.
Another problematic aspect of the study is the reason it uses to promote women’s employment: GDP growth. By building an economic case for gender parity, the subliminal message is that women’s paid work is utilitarian and a means to an end, not a worthy end in itself.
In defence of the study, it may be argued that the GDP is merely being used as a peg to sell the idea of greater women’s workforce participation to governments and the private sector. Its implication is that if greater sharing of paid and unpaid labour between men and women contributed only marginally to GDP growth, it will not be worth undertaking. Ideally, the argument for women’s paid work (or education) should be couched in terms of human rights, women’s fuller personhood and autonomy, not as a conduit to poverty eradication.
While the aim of including more women in the labour force remains valuable, it should lead us to deeper analyses of the multiple factors that keep women away. Among others, care needs to be re-envisioned as a collective endeavour outside the family and within the state’s mandate. Suitable changes in our conceptions and calculations of work can unleash women’s skills and abilities currently suppressed by gendered labour. Of course, this would strengthen our economy as measured not by the GDP, but by the realisation of the creative potential of women and men alike.
Nandy and Hensman are social scientists based in New Delhi and Mumbai respectively