Woman with basket

In recent years there has much global regret about the low levels of women’s employment in many parts of the world. Some of this hand-wringing is justified – women’s participation in the labor force is good for the economy (and thus we have a series of estimates of the rises in GDP growth possible by closing gender gaps in labor force participation and in wages), and it is often good for women’s autonomy and empowerment.

But some of this apparently foregone economic benefit of women not joining the work force is notional rather than actual. It stems from a convention which measures productivity and work in terms of wages and income. Thus GDP statistics do not take into account the several hours of unpaid labor that women (working and non-working) put into activities that would cost a lot of money if someone were paid to do them. So if two unemployed women exchanged their housekeeping duties and paid one another for these services, by the conventional measure, a country’s GDP would rise just by the fact of each woman stepping out of her home to clean her neighbor’s kitchen instead of her own or look after her friend’s bedridden mother-in-law instead of her own. Not to mention that for each woman, this switch might be more fun too!

It is therefore entirely justified that various feminist economists’ groups have been asking for a change in the method of calculating national income that takes account of the unpaid work that women do. One estimate for the United States, for example, calculated that the nominal GDP in 2010 would be 26% higher than recorded if the value of non-paid household production were included. The change in GDP in poor countries would be even higher given the amount of unpaid labor women put into tasks like fetching water and fuel.

Moreover, given that women’s empowerment is correlated with their access to an income, perhaps such mutual exchanges should be encouraged even if we stick to our old methods of GDP calculation! Until we can convince families that unpaid work has a market value, money in women’s hands, however acquired, is worth more than just its contribution to national or household income – it is a contribution to women’s domestic and outside power; in turn, it is a contribution to family welfare as well, given that studies show that money is women’s hands is more likely to be spent on family welfare than the same income earned by men.

But there is also another interesting way in which non-working women are nevertheless economically important for a family. To understand this, one has to think about poverty being defined not by how much a family spends per day or month or year (the endless debate about whether the poverty line should be drawn at a dollar or $1.25 worth of consumption per person a day is about that), but by how much different families can buy with the same amount of money.

In international calculations, the notion of purchasing power parity (or PPP) adjustments does exactly that. But my field work in India demonstrated to me how there can also be important intra-family differences in poverty measured in this way. Different households are very differently capable of making ends meet even when their incomes are controlled. Balancing the family budget is for poor families usually as much of a juggling act as it is for Finance Ministers of poor countries. And my interesting finding was that it is the women of a home that take the responsibility for much of this juggling and financial wizardry.

This finding came about when I did a survey of the household impact of an adult woman’s death; quite apart from the social and emotional costs of the loss on families, what surprised me was the number of times families mentioned the slide into economic poverty that occurred when a mother died even when that mother had never held a job that paid wages. Several of the bereaved spouses talked about how they could suddenly not afford the standard of living that their wives seemed to have provided them with for the same income. Food sufficiency seemed to be the major casualty, often with tragic consequences for the health and nutrition of the children left behind.

I came away from this study with a new slogan: Frugality, Thy Name is Woman.