Gender and the Economy

This five-part series from the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management highlights some of the most critical issues related to gender and economic development and offers approaches working to address them.

There is a great deal of rhetoric about the importance of including women in the economy.  Governments, NGOs, and consulting firms alike emphasize the increased economic prosperity that can come from women participating in the labor market. Unfortunately, most of those organizations ignore the existing unpaid care work that already fills many women’s days. For women to participate in formal jobs, they must find others who can take on their care work at home. This is where extended family systems can help.

Extended family systems, like polygamous marriages and joint families, are sometimes seen as oppressive for women, especially from the perspective of cultures where nuclear families are the norm. Young women often have little formal power in these systems, and stories of abuse circulate widely in the media. But for the people who live in these families, they can just as often be important sources of support that help women balance their paid work and unpaid care responsibilities. In places without social safety nets or affordable domestic help, extended family networks are essential to women’s ability to work both inside and outside the home.

Joint families in India

In India, joint families are still common and held up as an ideal. They typically consist of brothers living together with their wives, children, parents, and unmarried siblings, though there are many variations. Young women who marry into these households enter as relative strangers and are often expected to take on the majority of domestic work. In the mid-2000s, a spike in violence against young Indian brides, often committed by mothers-in-law in order to extract more dowry from the brides’ families, sparked a global outcry. Though new domestic violence laws were enacted in response, the struggles faced by brides joining their husband’s families continue to be a staple of popular culture in India and of global discourse on women’s empowerment.

Thanks to the support of their families at home, women were able to participate in a volunteer trash pickup effort organized by an Indian village's health committee (Photo by Rachael Goodman)

On the other hand, many Indian women find joint families an important source of support, particularly if they need to join the formal labor force. In the foothills of the Himalayas, where we conducted 18 months of fieldwork between 2012 and 2015, all of the women who were employed outside the home had active support from their families. Without this assistance, they would not have been able to maintain formal jobs. For example, one woman who had worked for a local NGO for 15 years, relied on her in-laws to care for her children when she was away because there were no daycare centers in this region and she could not afford to hire a maid. Without the support of her in-laws, she would not have been able to go out to work.

The Indian government began funding daycare centers in 1975, but they did not reach the Himalayan foothills until the 2000s and are rarely a reliable source of childcare. Though there was such a center in the village where another female NGO worker lived, it was not open regularly, and children who were not potty-trained were not allowed to attend. This woman relied instead on her father-in-law to care for her youngest daughter. When her father-in-law was not available, she had to bring her daughter to work or take an unscheduled leave, which was not well received by her manager.

There were also instances of younger working women receiving assistance from their families. While one woman worked as an assistant teacher at her local primary school, her mother and younger siblings took on the domestic work she was otherwise expected to do. This young woman used the money she earned to pay her college tuition, which her parents could not afford on their own. Based on our observations, families in the Himalayan foothills did not merely agree to women working; they actively supported their work by taking on tasks at home that formally employed women could not do.

The positive side of extended families

Polygamy (marriage between more than two people) and more specifically polygyny (marriage between one man and multiple women) are also widely seen as oppressive for the women involved. Many critics assume that such marriages are beneficial only to husbands and are rooted in patriarchal systems that ignore women’s needs and desires. In places where people practice such marriages, stories circulate about sometimes vicious rivalries between co-wives. However, cooperation between co-wives is also common and, for some families, polygynous marriages provide women with economic and social support that would otherwise be difficult to secure.

Among the Bamanan people of Mali in West Africa, co-wives rely on one another for help with domestic work and caring for children, as well as advice on health and marital problems. Since younger wives often take over some of the domestic duties of older wives, some women encourage their husbands to take a second wife and even help choose a new wife. While these relationships are not always cooperative, research has found that Bamanan women, unlike women elsewhere, do not uniformly dislike polygyny. In Mali, cooperation among co-wives has been vital to the survival of large families that depend on their labor at home and in the fields. Though women generally are not formally employed, they still have essential work to perform—work that requires the assistance of co-wives.

Women in polygynous families may also be an important source of support for each other, particularly during difficult times like childbirth or the start of a marriage. Co-wives may develop close friendships after living near one another and sharing important parts of their lives. Some co-wives and their children even continue to support one another and live together after their husband dies.

Networks of support in the Western world

The importance of non-nuclear families to women’s work is not only a feature of life in the developing world. Women everywhere in the world are still expected to take on the majority of care work and house work at home. Women in the West, particularly those from poor or marginalized communities, also rely on extended family networks to survive. With declining government benefits, lack of access to paid leave, and a dearth of affordable housing and childcare, many women working low-wage jobs must rely on others to fill in the gaps. A study of working poor African American and Latina mothers in Boston found that most relied on relatives to care for their children while they worked, as well as for emotional and financial support. Most of the women had hourly jobs, so they could not afford private childcare, and some worked the night shift when childcare is rarely available. The younger women in this study even lived in joint families with their parents and siblings, benefitting from them in many of the ways the Indian women in our field study did.

As temporary, precarious, and unpaid labor has become an increasingly common part of people’s work experience in the developed world, many young, middle-class women and men are returning to live with their parents after college. In 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, 32 percent of 18-34 year olds in the United States were living with their parents, the first time in 130 years that such an arrangement was more common than living with a partner. Extended families are making a comeback in the United States as people seek ways to cope with job insecurity and the rising costs of living.

These examples show that extended family systems serve as social safety nets for those with limited means. To achieve women’s economic inclusion, policymakers will need to either provide services to support women’s care work, or recognize and support the use of family systems to do so. Here are our recommendations:

  1. Pay attention to the barriers to women’s economic inclusion. Most empowerment programs for women focus on creating jobs or providing support for entrepreneurship without recognizing that women are frequently responsible for care work. Research has shown that women’s economic empowerment through microfinance, for example, may not be as effective as hoped, because recipients do not always have time to devote to their projects given their care responsibilities.
  2. Examine how cultural practices can enable and not just constrain women’s economic inclusion. The examples presented here are an important reminder that cultural practices are neither inherently good or bad, nor empowering or disempowering, for women. Joint families and polygynous marriages, like Western nuclear families, have the potential to be both beneficial and harmful. Rather than trying to eliminate practices that can be bad for women and rejecting significant aspects of other cultures, we argue for a more careful and nuanced understanding of existing values and social systems.
  3. Find and celebrate the parts of social systems that are already empowering. Working with family systems that benefit women can create a stronger base for lasting improvement in women’s lives. In the foothills of the Himalayas, NGO workers and community members held up as examples for others families who supported women attending school and working. Rather than questioning the joint family as an institution, they celebrated the positive aspects of it. NGOs invited supportive families to speak to donors and wrote about them in newsletters, and the families gained prominence in their villages. These efforts have helped make support for women’s education the norm, rather than the exception, and active support for women working formal jobs is growing.
  4. Value care work as much as paid work. Current calculations of GDP do not include time spent on care work and therefore undervalue the contributions women are already making to the economy through unpaid work at home. A study found that in 2009-2010 Australians spent 21.4 billion hours undertaking unpaid care work, which was valued at more than $650 billion. In many settings, when women go out to work, other family members (potentially other women in the household) must take on this unpaid labor. Finding ways to value care work more explicitly may help change the calculations that governments, NGOs, and families themselves make about distributing resources.

Extended family systems, like joint families in India and polygynous families in Mali, can be important sources of support for women, especially in terms of helping them balance care work and paid work outside the home. In a world where women are still expected to bear the brunt of care work at home, economic inclusion efforts that build on the positive aspects of existing social systems and value the care work that women do, will be both more reflective of local cultures and more likely to generate sustainable women’s empowerment.