The Empowerment of Women in the Household starts with their Empowerment in the Market

This blog is written by Dr. Zafiris Tzannatos, Senior Consultant for Strategy and Policy


A precondition for effective bargaining (or, as some put it, negotiation) is to have some kind of power. This power can derive from “voice,” whereby you put your claim out in the open and hope to get a favorable response (think of shaming your spouse or seeking legal recourse).  Or, if you have an acceptable alternative, power can take the form of “exit” (voting with your feet: think of divorce or emigration when political/economic conditions deteriorate).

Women did not have much of either option in the past. Their voices were silenced by patriarchal institutions, work opportunities were few and exit options (to where?) were limited. Of course, individuals can rise or fall depending on the circumstances they face and their own deeds.  However, collectively we are bound by the constraints imposed by prevailing economic, societal and political institutions, or, in other words, the laws, regulations, norms, culture, customs, and religion that provide the framework within which two fundamental human activities take place: production/market and reproduction/family (both in their broadest sense, i.e., including all transactions and types of households).

Production and reproduction have for long been characterized by a strict division of labor. This division started becoming blurred in high-income countries after World War II. In the 30 years that followed the end of the war (“Les Trente Glorieuses”), fast economic growth led to full employment conditions.

As the limited supply of male workers started to be exhausted, real wages started rising and, with them, family incomes. Rising incomes reduced the need for women to work in what used to be their main “employers” before the War (farming and domestic service) or to even work at all. On the other hand, rising wages made staying at home increasingly expensive for women.  The issue thus became an empirical one: Would the wage carrot win over the stick of need?

The carrot won and women did not end up becoming “Victorian ladies of leisure” and a broader win-win situation emerged. Rising wages provided women with incentives to join the labor force and, with that, the desire to invest more in their human capital.  And, as the saying goes, employers were only too happy to pay women half of what they would have paid men to get twice as much.

These developments in the labor market started to be at odds with the established gender division of labor in production and at home. In the 1950s, most norms, legal or customary, were working against the economic independence of women, thus lowering their voice and limiting their exit options. The norm entailed a more or less religiously sanctioned family in which the man was the chef de famille, the breadwinner, the one to make decisions and to be obeyed.  Women, family and motherhood were so connected that in some countries, even until the 1950s, working women had to resign once they got married. The idea was that the combination of work and motherhood were incompatible with the values of the State.

In some cases, employment regulations directly marginalized women by prescribing lower pay rates for them though they worked in similar/ same jobs as men, or by prohibiting women from working in certain jobs or advancing above a certain grade.

In other cases, the effect was indirect: For couples, taxes were not levied separately on the incomes of each family member but on the total family income. Thus, the wages of the “secondary earner” (typically the wife) were taxed at higher rates than those of the breadwinner (typically the husband) thus lowering the incentive to women for work. Just to realize what “secondary earner” means today, in 40% of heterosexual American marriages the wife earns more than her husband. This is way above what it was in 1960 (11%) and not that far off the 50% equality mark.

Today, there are many hard-won equal pay and employment anti-discrimination laws that have paved a more level playing field for women and men. They are supplemented by a host of other laws with respect to hiring, training, apprenticeships, promotions, working conditions (e.g., for part-time workers and the self-employed), pensions, social protection, sexual harassment, affirmative action and, importantly, who would bear the burden of proof if a dispute arises.

What the past tells us is that institutions adapt and have changed, and were even annulled or reversed, to accommodate production needs.  And not only that. By giving women louder voice and exit options, reproduction changed. Today, fertility in most high-income countries is barely at replacement level.

What could the future be like in the Arab region, which used to have one of the lowest female literacy rates and highest fertility rates in the 1960s and today has the widest gender gap in employment? Perhaps, answering that question is not very difficult.

Today, there is little left of the gender gap in education and in some Arab countries most students are female. In fact, many Arab women outperform their male counterparts in exams. The age of marriage has increased significantly and fertility has gone down from seven to around three children per woman in the course of only one generation – a process that took the U.S. 100 years.  In some countries, one in three women between the ages of 15-40 are not married.  Across the region, one in three of all Arab women who ever worked since the 1950s are still in the labor market, forming a productive army that cannot be ignored.  And there are nearly 7 million unemployed “breadwinners” compared to 4.5 million unemployed “secondary workers.”

Production and reproduction have changed in the Arab region. Women are now out in the market but this is not enough: To achieve gender equality, men will need to be equal in the home.  And if the past is any indicator, the institutional changes that have already started are likely to accelerate.



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