Saas, bahu aur naukri: The inter-generational effect on gender norms

Saas, bahu aur naukri: The inter-generational effect on gender norms
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  • A married woman’s employability is linked to a mother-in-law’s employment status, husband’s salary and so on, as per a new report.
  • For underprivileged rural women, there is no marriage and motherhood penalty when it comes to employment.
  • Most such women, however, turn into contributing family workers in agriculture and work for subsistence.
  • In districts where women have high paid jobs, there are also more cases of domestic violence.
One generation leads the other and that’s true in the case of women and their employment status in India. An unemployed mother-in-law can bring down the employability of a married woman and vice-versa, according to the ‘State of Working India 2023’ report by Azim Premji University.

Proving that there is an inter-generational effect on gender norms, the report says that a married woman living in a household with an unemployed mother-in-law is less likely to be employed — 20% less likelihood in urban areas, and 30% in rural areas. This is in comparison to households without a mother-in-law.

“However, if the mother-in-law was present and employed herself, this is associated with a higher likelihood of women’s participation to the extent of 50% (rural) to 70% (urban) more than households with no mother-in-law present,” the report released on Wednesday said.

The husband and his earnings

The story of women and employment in India is far from a straight line – many factors including marital status, economic status and motherhood – all have a direct impact on it. For married women especially, the husband’s salary is seen to have a direct impact.

The report finds that husband’s income has a U-shaped effect on women’s employability. “A common gender norm is the “male breadwinner” norm, i.e. husbands are considered the primary earners with wives contributing to household income only if necessary,” the report says.

In households where the husband’s earnings are high, the probability of the wife being employed is low, controlling for individual and household factors. But it’s not a straight line. After the husband's salary crosses ₹40,000 per month, women’s employability increases, especially in urban areas.

“This U-shaped pattern could result from a change in norms with rising incomes or it could also be due to the fact that such husbands are matched with higher educated wives who have preferences as well as opportunities to access better paid work,” the report says.

What’s the price of a job?

In the case of rural women, marriage and motherhood only improves their employment. However, that’s associated with the fact that they turn into contributing family workers in agricultural work or find or find self-employment.

“Thus, for women in the informal economy, rather than a marriage or motherhood penalty for employment, we find the reverse. But the absence of a penalty may not be a positive outcome since it likely reflects a compulsion to work for subsistence,” says the report.

But are women happier with more employability? There is no straight answer for this question as well because there is data to show that districts that report high rates of working women also show women saying that they make their own healthcare decisions, own large assets or meet relatives.

Yet, independence comes with a painful price for working women – as districts with higher percentages of women with paid working jobs also report higher domestic violence. “The suggested mechanism is that working women are more likely to face partner violence due to challenging of established gender norms,” the report says.