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The Two World's of Women's Work

Gender inequality in the world of work. It’s a global issue, present in every society regardless of how developed or underdeveloped it may be. Despite significant improvements in the last few decades, lower wages, fewer opportunities and workplace harassment are all realities of daily life for women across the world. This may be because, in many cultures, traditional ideas of women’s role in society prescribe specific skills or areas of work, but may also be because women in all countries undertake the majority of real unpaid work.

Whether caring for children or elderly family members, preparing meals, taking care of general household maintenance or countless other tasks, a woman’s central role in unpaid or ‘reproductive’ work inevitably reduces the amount of time and resources available to her for income-generating activities. While for many women this dedication to their family is a responsibility they accept willingly, it often seriously restricts their access to formal sector employment opportunities.

While in many Western countries much is made of the role maternity leave, and the corporate world’s attitude towards it, plays in limiting women’s career development, in countries with less historical progress in the field of gender equality the effects can be far more significant. Compounded by a lack of state support for working mothers, inadequate child care facilities and cultural attitudes towards gender roles, many women find themselves effectively excluded from meaningful participation in the labour market.

As is so often the case, it is the most economically disadvantaged who typically experience the most significant gender exclusion. With limited resources comes a lack of alternative options to dedicating significant time and energy to vital household work, leaving many women in lower income families without the possibility of formal, contracted work. It is perhaps for this reason, above all, that the informal sector presents a valuable alternative for millions of vulnerable women.

With low barriers to entry, a high degree of flexibility and relative job security compared to the formal sector, for many women informal or home-based work is a vital source of supplementary income. Reflecting the irregular nature of the work typically such income is far from certain, but nevertheless plays an important role in the lives of millions of families, particularly in newly-emerging economies. Aside from supplementing the salary of male family members, many of whom are also likely to work in the informal sector, it promises a certain degree of financial independence for women who would otherwise rely entirely on their husband for money. This allows them to make important decisions about the daily allocation of funds for household use based on their experience and expertise in the unpaid ‘reproductive economy.’

Most importantly of all, the informal sector empowers women to prioritise their role as caregivers while retaining a vital economic role in the household. Women’s informal work is often conducted in the home itself or the immediate vicinity, whether independently or as part of a larger supply chain, perhaps even working with other women in their local community. This ensures they are far more available to deal with any household or family issues which may arise, largely free from the constraints associated with contracted employment; fixed office hours and rigid leave policies.

In Jakarta, as across Indonesia, women play an active role in the informal economy, and it is by far the single largest provider of female income opportunities. Whether running small, in-home restaurants or shops, market stalls, selling traditional supplements, offering services such as textile repair, laundry, massages, motorcycle taxis or supporting their other family members’ businesses, low barriers to entry mean women are more often valued for their skills and business initiative rather than their potential to maximise profits for a third party. As attitudes towards female participation in work gradually change, it is more and more common to find women moving into professions traditionally associated with men, including various modes of transport provision, where once again the flexibility of informal work is often more appealing than more formalised alternatives.

Of the women interviewed by RRJ, none mentioned being coerced or pressured into whatever form of informal work they were engaged in. Rather, all suggested that they had done so of their own free will, as a means of supporting their family and securing independence from exclusively relying on their husband’s income. Frequently passed down from mother to daughter, micro-enterprises empower women to maximise their productive potential, retain their central role in family life and secure an alternative income stream should hard times arise. Despite the inevitable challenges, a sense of pride was expressed at successfully balancing family life with the demands of informal business, playing not one, but two essential roles in the household.

This is not to say that women’s participation in the informal economy is unproblematic. It often reflects wider inequalities in access to the labour market and failings in gender policy at the national, regional and global scale. It may leave women without adequate workplace safety, insurance, healthcare, legal protection and workers’ rights. Rather than the root cause of the problem, however, for many women the informal sector provides the only viable option for economic empowerment when faced with structural gender inequality. Instead of targeting or attempting to eradicate informal spaces, we should instead be asking ourselves why it is that women often find themselves unable to access employment opportunities elsewhere. If formal sector employment is the ultimate aim, then what is it about the current system which so clearly fails to provide for the needs of so many?

It is often by relying on social networks and familial bonds that women overcome the challenges of informal work to fulfill vital roles in not only their individual families, but also the wider community. Primary breadwinners, caregivers, mothers, wives and diligent daughters, only when the reality of women’s dedication to ‘reproductive work’ is formally recognised in economic policy and planning at the national level will issues of economic gender inequality begin to be addressed. Until then, the long hours of unpaid labour given freely in service to their families mean that, for many women, the informal economy provides the only spaces in which they are at least partially free to maximise both their economic and social potential.

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