Published on Development Impact

Because the Mother-in-Law was Once a Daughter-in-Law: Mothers-in-Law Boost Women’s Labor Force Participation by Sharing Housework Burdens: Guest post by Divya Pandey

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This is the 11th in our series of students on the job market this year

Women’s labor force participation is thwarted by rigid gender roles that assign women a disproportionate role in housework and childcare. In developing countries, women’s participation in the labor market is further hindered by enduring social norms that constrain women’s autonomy and mobility. A coresident mother-in-law (MIL) may influence women’s employment decisions by driving the two forces in opposite directions. On the one hand, MILs can encourage their daughter-in-law’s (DIL’s) employment outside the home by sharing their housework and childcare responsibilities. On the other hand, MILs can impede the DIL’s labor force participation by reinforcing restrictive social norms and constraining her mobility and bargaining power. The overall effect of the MIL on women’s labor force participation will depend on which of the two counteracting mechanisms dominate. In my job market paper, my coauthor Madhulika Khanna and I examine the effects of the MIL’s presence on women’s labor force participation in India.


Coresidence with MILs, the rigidity of social norms, and women’s empowerment

In patriarchal-patrilocal societies, women’s agency is determined by social norms that cause a family’s honor and social status to depend on the demeanor of its women, and their movement outside the home is often considered inappropriate. South Asian joint families in which several generations coreside may have a significant impact on women’s decisions. In joint families, MILs head the power hierarchy of the tasks assigned to women, and they act as the guardian of social norms. To guard their family’s honor and ensure that DILs adhere to their predefined roles as homemakers, MILs impose restrictive social norms on their DILs and inhibit their autonomy and mobility.


The massive audience for Indian soap operas that portray a complex MIL/DIL love-hate relation is a testimony to this relationship's importance. The literature also provides mixed evidence on the effect of the matriarch’s presence on women’s agency. While some studies show that MILs restrict women’s autonomy, others suggest that living with their MIL enhances women’s overall well-being (see Anukriti et al. 2020; Allendorf 2015). The contrasting results indicate that the MIL/DIL dynamics should not be reduced to a unidimensional portrayal of an essentially hostile relationship. MILs may also encourage women’s labor force participation by sharing the housework burden.


An empirical strategy to isolate the effect of MILs on women’s employment decisions

We estimate the causal effect of coresident MILs on women’s labor force participation using a sample from the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), a nationally representative household panel survey conducted in 2005 and 2012. Our empirical strategy exploits two sources of variation. First, we use the potentially exogenous death of the MIL and compare women’s labor force participation across households in which the MIL died versus those in which the MIL lived. Next, we exploit the temporal variation in women’s labor force participation before and after the MIL’s death.


The primary challenge in identifying the MIL's effect on women's employment status is that the decision to live with the MIL is endogenous. For example, a woman who strongly prefers to work outside the home and views a MIL as potential help with housework may choose to live with her MIL. Unobserved omitted variables may jointly determine cohabitation between a woman and her MIL and her decision to participate in the labor market. To address this concern, we restrict our estimation sample to women who coreside with their MILs at the baseline.


A second challenge to identifying the causal effect of the MIL’s death on women’s labor force participation is that the death of the MIL may be nonrandom. Unobserved socioeconomic characteristics of women, their households, and their communities may be correlated with the death of the MIL and women’s employment status. We employ individual fixed effects in our empirical model that absorb any time-invariant unobservable characteristics of women that are correlated with their decision to participate in the labor force and the MIL's death. To alleviate further concerns about the household's time-variant demographic conditions that affect both the death of the MIL and the DIL's labor force participation, we conduct a placebo test to investigate the effects of the death of the coresident father-in-law (FIL).


Main results: Death of the MIL reduces women’s labor force participation

Figure 1 plots the labor force participation rate for women whose MILs died between 2005 and 2012 and those whose MILs did not die. Three striking patterns are clear from this figure. First, consistent with recent trends observed in India, women's labor force participation declined for both groups over the 7 years between 2005 and 2012. Second, labor force participation for those who eventually lost their MILs was always higher than those who did not. This could be because women whose MILs died are likely to be older and because older women face fewer mobility constraints, they are more likely to be employed, to begin with (Rahman and Rao 2004). Last, the decline in labor force participation for women whose MILs died was steeper, which is essentially the paper's main result.


labor force participation when mothers in law die

Using our estimation strategy, we show that the MIL's death reduces women's labor force participation by 4.6 percentage points (pp), which is about 10 percent of the labor force participation rate of women whose MILs did not die. To put our findings in perspective, our estimated effect lies between a 3 pp increase in women's employment rates after the introduction of the birth control pill in the US to a 9 pp increase due to electrification in South Africa (Bailey 2006; Dinkelman 2011).


We show that the death of the FIL does not affect women’s employment status, which alleviates concerns about socioeconomic changes in women's status over time as the drivers of our results. These results demonstrate that women's labor supply is adversely affected by shocks that increase their housework burden.


Mechanisms: Women spend more time on household production tasks after the MIL’s death

We next provide suggestive evidence in favor of the mechanism whereby the increased housework burden after the MIL’s death drives the decrease in women’s employment rates. First, we show that women whose MILs have died are less likely to visit their natal homes often, which suggests that they have less free time after housework. Second, we show that the MIL's death increases the time women spend on household production tasks, such as collecting water and fuel. Consistent with the argument that the increased burden of household chores reduces women's employment rates, women with four or more children---who presumably have more housework to attend to---drive the effect of the MIL's death.


Key takeaways from the study

This paper demonstrates that family structure and housework burdens are important factors in women's employment decisions. We show that the death of a MIL reduces women’s employment rates by increasing their housework burden. Our results imply that even though MILs may play a restrictive role in contexts such as autonomy and social networks, their presence is not a binding constraint for women's decision to work. Nevertheless, our results should be interpreted with caution, since they are only valid for the sample of women living with their MILs at baseline.


Overall, our findings suggest that long-established gender roles that cast women as better suited to housework and childcare are crucial barriers to women’s labor force participation. From a policy perspective, challenging rigid gender roles and easing women's housework burden by providing access to technology and childcare can ease the supply-side constraints on women's participation in the labor market. These policy responses are of particular relevance to India, where women's employment rates are low and declining despite rapid economic growth, educational gains, and fertility declines.


Divya Pandey is a PhD student at the Department of Economics in the University of Virginia.



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