Saturday, May 18, 2024

Conundrum of working women in India: Our menfolk must step up

In a standard economic model, agents maximize utility across goods, services and leisure. Economic agents work and forgo leisure only to earn wages or income to purchase goods and services. Agents in these models are free to form preferences over leisure, implying that if there is an alternative source of income that does not require an individual to work, then there is a possibility that some agents might choose not to work. However, for those agents who choose to work, there is a further possibility that if they become more productive and wage rates go up, then they might reduce their labour supply. There are opposing effects of an increase in wage rates: a substitution effect that makes leisure more expensive, and may therefore cause a substitution of leisure for work, and a contrasting income effect, such that if one’s overall income goes up due to higher wage rates, the individual might reduce work hours in pursuit of leisure. The effect that dominates, however, is an empirical question. A fundamental lesson from this simple model, which is deprived of cultural and historical factors and denies the role of institutions that limit an individual’s actions, is that the pursuit of leisure is one of the primary objectives of the individual. It is only tempered to the extent that agents maximize utility over other goods and services, some of which can only be purchased from markets, which requires an income. Even though leisure is a vital utility-maximizing activity, there is limited focus on it, and it is typically overshadowed by topics related to work, employment and labour force participation.

Graphic: Mint

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Graphic: Mint

In this essay, I wish to quantify the proportion of time in a typical day that people spend pursuing leisurely activities. In particular, I wish to highlight a conundrum working women face. My analysis reveals that working women spend significantly less time on leisurely activities than working men and also compared to women who do not spend any time on employment-related activities. A vast body of research has attempted to explain the low levels of participation by women in India’s labour force. However, limited attention has been paid to women’s differential trade-offs vis-à-vis work and leisure. I wish to address this gap quantitatively.

I exploit the Time Use Survey (TUS) conducted by the Union ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi) in 2019. The TUS was a national representative sample that measured, in 30-minute intervals from 4am onwards, the time spent by the population on nine major divisions of activities: (1) Employment and related activities, (2) Production of goods for own final use, (3) Unpaid domestic services for household and family members, (4) Unpaid caregiving services for household and family members, (5) Unpaid volunteer, trainee and other unpaid work, (6) Learning, (7) Socializing and communication, community participation and religious practice, (8) Culture, leisure, mass media and sports practices, and (9) Self-care and maintenance. This classification of activities was based on the 2016 United Nations’ International Classification of Activities for Time-Use statistics. The sample for the analysis comprised 257,677 individuals aged between 21 and 59 years, of which 126,134 (49%) were male and 131,543 were female.

My analysis revealed that in the age group of 21 to 59 years, 24% of women and 84% of men spent some time of the day on employment-related activities. We classify leisurely activities as: (a) Socializing and communication, community participation and religious practice; and (b) Culture, leisure, mass media and sports practices. Women who work spend 8.7% of their typical day on leisure activities, while men who work spend 12% of their time on leisure activities. Women who did not spend any time on employment and related activities spent 17% of their time on leisure activities, while non-working men spent 24% of their typical day pursuing leisure. Moreover, working women spent 26% of their typical day on employment and related activities, while for working men, it was 35% of their time. However, in addition to working, women spent 17.4% of their time on unpaid domestic services for the household and family members, which included caregiving services. In comparison, working men spent 2.5% of their typical day on such activities. This analysis revealed the challenge of working women in pursuit of leisurely activities.

A vast body of research has looked at social, cultural and technological factors to explain low levels of female labour force participation. In addition, we need to focus on the sacrifice a working woman has to make in terms of leisurely activities and time for self-care and maintenance. The double burden of employment and domestic chores for working women comes at the expense of leisure. If more women participate in employment-related activities while preserving the traditional household structure, then men must share the burden of unpaid domestic responsibilities. A gender bias in people’s work-life balance would need to be addressed in the modern era—at the societal level as well as within every family—as we in India aspire for a women-led development model. Our menfolk will have to step up!

Shamika Ravi is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister

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