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Rise of the female breadwinner


The steady rise of women in the workforce over the past 30 years has helped drive the global economy, but has it really addressed inequality? LSE professor Naila Kabeer explores this question in a new book launched by the Gender Institute this month.

In Lesotho, a landlocked mountainous African country where poverty is deep and widespread, growing numbers of women in urban areas are shunning marriage. Instead, they are using their wages to buy their own homes.

Further north, in Kenya, working women are complaining about their husbands’ failure to bring in both sufficient income and share the burden of domestic chores.

Meanwhile, across the Indian Ocean in many parts of Asia, marriage rates are tumbling and fertility rates declining as women celebrate their hard-won financial autonomy.

These examples provide a modern-day glimpse of life for many women, particularly in developing countries, where the rise of the female breadwinner is emerging as a double-edged sword.

LSE Professor of Gender and Development, Naila Kabeer, says the global shift in marriage, motherhood and masculinity has raised some important questions for economists and sociologists alike.

Joining the workforce has given women an income of their own, an escape from domestic drudgery, and also helped satisfy the global demand for labour, but it has come at a cost. Women are being stretched to breaking point.

The dual pressures of unpaid domestic chores – which still largely fall to women – and workplace responsibilities are taking their toll, most noticeably in the marital home.

The conflict is exacerbated by a global trend in which men’s employment has either been stagnant or even declining.

These factors are all challenging deeply ingrained views of masculinity and creating a new paradigm for men and women across the globe.

“Men’s responses have played an important role in shaping women’s experiences in the workplace,” Professor Kabeer says.

“Many – in developing countries particularly – have found the adjustment difficult, manifested in their refusal to share domestic and childcare responsibilities and resorting to drinking, violence, extramarital affairs and even returning to their own families.”

A combination of falling fertility rates, rising levels of female education and changing aspirations are transforming both the economic and gender landscape across the world.

Professor Kabeer says the tension created by women taking on the traditional male breadwinner role has had other consequences. The rise in sex workers and the growing demand for migrant female labour from poorer countries by their wealthier sisters are examples.

“Men are paying for sex with women from other cultures that are considered more accommodating, more dependent and less assertive.

“The result is the emergence of global markets in care, sex and marriage that are often characterised by extreme forms of exploitation.”

In theory, the entry of women into the workplace should be regarded as a positive step towards addressing the inequalities that have existed in many societies. In practice, women are carrying more work burdens than ever before.

“The logic of the market does not apply in the family setting,” Professor Kabeer says.

Married women, particularly, are employing ‘trade-offs’ in developing countries to counter the resistance from their husbands for their wives to take up paid work.

These concessions include women accepting jobs where they are less visible; handing over the wages to their husbands in symbolic acknowledgment of his traditional status; and earmarking their income for collective household expenses.

There are some exceptions, Professor Kabeer notes.

Certain societies – such as Vietnam - have a more relaxed attitude to the gender division of domestic labour, and women in the Dominican Republic, for example, have begun to demand a ‘wage’ from their husbands for hitherto unpaid family labour.

Economic independence is also making marriage less attractive, with many women in Africa, Latin America and Asia either rejecting marriage, or walking out of relationships which don’t satisfy their emotional needs.

“Women across the world are making a stance and choosing to live apart from men if the burden of work is not being shared. Societies that are most impacted are those where cultural expectations still place the onus of responsibility for unpaid domestic work, childcare and care of elderly in-laws onto women.”

Do these changing patterns of family life represent a crisis, or a transition? It depends on your point of view, Professor Kabeer says.

“It is clearly a crisis for those whose view of human reproduction is tied to a patriarchal family ideal. However, it may also be paving the way for new societies which accommodate and support greater diversity in the family structure.”

Useful information

New Frontiers in Feminist Political Economy is being launched on Monday 18 November at 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Naila Kabeer is Professor of Gender and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests include gender, poverty, social exclusion, labour markets and livelihoods, social protection and citizenship and much of her research has focused on South Asia.

For more details about her work and background, go to: http://nailakabeer.com/

Uploaded November 2013