Gender Question | How to smash the patriarchy? Listen to women - Hindustan Times

Gender Question | How to smash the patriarchy? Listen to women

ByDhamini Ratnam
Jan 21, 2024 07:16 PM IST

Two different research surveys conducted in India and Pakistan in different years demonstrate how men’s preferences are considered more valuable than women's

The world is at war, and it’s not Ukraine or Russia, or Israel or Gaza, or Iran or Pakistan, or the United States or Yemen that we’re talking about. This war is older than all of them, and according to at least one very interesting economist, it has existed since the dawn of agriculture-based human settlement. In ‘10,000 years of Patriarchy’ — a project by visiting fellow at Stanford University, Dr Alice Evans — we see how gender roles came to be valued differently as land became valuable (thus, a woman’s reproductive ability came to be controlled for inheritance). Subsequent waves of socially significant changes, like religion and later, industrialisation, ascribed different values to different domains, such as the workplace, the house. The more patriarchal a society was, the wider the gap in value ascribed to men’s and women’s roles.

An early 20th century Deccani miniature painting of a caravanserai shows a woman sitting inside, managing domestic chores, while the men sit outside and indulge in gupshup.(WikiCommons) PREMIUM
An early 20th century Deccani miniature painting of a caravanserai shows a woman sitting inside, managing domestic chores, while the men sit outside and indulge in gupshup.(WikiCommons)

For instance, on her substack,, Evans writes: “Britain’s Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the male breadwinner (Griffin 2020). Women’s work was equally fundamental to social reproduction: they cooked, cleaned and cared for their kids in squalid slums. But this was totally unappreciated. They were still seen as delicate minors, unworthy of suffrage.”

Recent research has tried to explain why this unpaid domestic work is considered less valuable in a system that otherwise functions on exalting labour, productivity, and its material benefits. Part of this lies in recognising which domains are considered more powerful and socially valued — the office boardroom over the home courtyard; the Parliament over the kitchen.

Those who occupy the more valued spaces are worthy of greater deference, and thus, acquire more power. Those who occupy more valued spaces are extended such deference even when they leave the domain of power and enter into any other domain. Thus, the father’s place lies at the head of the dining table though the food being cooked and put on the table is not by him, and more often than not, is the product of the labour of women.

This deference extends to decision-making for the household — and on personal decisions that have an economic impact on the woman’s life and her family’s income. In fact, research papers have shown that such deference to people who occupy socially valuable domains (men in office, for instance) ends up affecting several aspects of women’s lives, not just their jobs. Let’s look at two such studies.

In a recent podcast (Rocking our Priors, Soundcloud), Evans refers to a paper, which she calls “the best paper on the job market in 2023”, co-authored by Suhani Jalota and Lisa Ho.

To understand the barriers to employment in Mumbai, the two researchers conducted a randomised control trial with over 3,200 housewives and 860 husbands in a slum resettlement colony in the city. They studied how many women took up tasks at home, and how many at offices — the task, in fact, was identical: labelling data for artificial intelligence models. All offices were female-only, with flexible working hours, barely five minutes from their homes. The housewives in the study were offered the option to work from home, and the wages were randomised too. The highest wage offered was higher than what their husbands earned.

What the study found was that only 27% of the women were interested in going to work in the office — in line with the labour force participation. 56% preferred to work from home; a majority were insensitive to the highest wage offer if it meant working from office. A parallel experiment with husbands showed more responsiveness to wages, and no clear preference for the job location.

So why did a decent wage not lure women to offices?

It could be argued that women had more home-based tasks to do, and that is what led them to prefer home-based work, but the researchers found that women without young children were not more likely than women with young children to accept office jobs. What’s more, despite being given home-based work that had to be completed within a set time period — to prohibit multi-tasking — women still preferred to work from home.

“What on earth is going on?” Evans asks.

The simple reason, the researchers found, was that the women’s husbands said, no.

Even women who accepted the job backtracked after they were told not to by their husbands. Only around a fifth of the women in the study had permission to work outside of the home.

The second paper that empirically describes the impact when women are not able to assert their preferences is Sarah Khan’s.

Khan, a social scientist at Yale University, pointed out in a 2017 paper that gender hierarchy within the household shapes the content of men’s and women’s political preferences. Due to the lower value ascribed to household work, women’s preferences are valued differently. Women’s unwillingness to express a dissenting view on political issues within the household potentially extended to environments outside the household, which in turn, affects their civic and electoral participation.

Khan drew on a survey conducted in 800 households in Faisalabad, Pakistan, to demonstrate how women attach a lower value to their distinctive preferences than men — and are less willing to communicate these preferences to political representatives. “The gendered asymmetry in preference assertion has implications for democratic theories of representation: it suggests that the link between political participation and substantive representation may be undermined by gender inequality within the household,” she wrote.

What these different studies show is that even if women-centric policies are promised — or economic opportunities are presented to them — women are likely to defer to their husbands’ view, as they are socialised to do so. Khan’s study goes on to show that in order for women to assert their political views, not only must they have greater contact with all levels of government, their opinions must be taken seriously.

Gender Question is a weekly column by HT Premium editor Dhamini Ratnam on gender, sexuality and our blind spots about them.

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