Published on Development Impact

What prevents Indian housewives from local flexible work opportunities? Guest Post by Suhani Jalota

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This is the 7th in this year’s series of posts by PhD students on the job market.

In many developing countries, married women face significant challenges entering the workforce, even for flexible jobs. In urban India, the labor force participation rate for single women aged 25-29 is 60%, dropping to 20% among their married counterparts despite similar education levels (PLFS 2019-2020). These low rates persist even with the emergence of flexible online gig work over the last decade and a third of housewives expressing interest in employment. So, what is keeping them from joining the workforce?

One explanation is the physical location of available jobs, predominantly outside the home, introduces many constraints often rooted in gender norms. These may manifest as practical constraints, such as travel restrictions or unpaid housework and childcare burden. However, distinguishing these from intangible domesticity constraints, akin to the traditional “purdah” system that enforces female seclusion even in the absence of practical barriers, is challenging. A 2020 World Gallup survey found that one-fourth of male respondents in India opposed women working outside the home, ranking India in the bottom third globally for such support.

A set of critical questions then emerges: What barriers—practical or domestic—are more constraining housewives’ labor supply? Do these barriers restrict housewives from all forms of employment, or specifically from roles located outside their homes? Further, to what extent can reducing these constraints increase housewives' labor supply? My Job Market Paper with Lisa Ho attempts to separate these barriers.

Designing Smartphone-based Jobs at and Near Home

We conducted two large-scale field experiments with 3,200 wives and 860 husbands in Mumbai’s slum resettlement communities by comparing women's job take-up between working from home and at one of 35 newly established offices nearby, designed to minimize practical barriers. The job tasks, identical in both settings, required basic skills for data labeling activities, including reading sentences in local languages to support the training of artificial intelligence (AI) models. We established women-only offices, located within a 5-minute walk from their homes to mitigate safety, gender-based violence, and mobility concerns. Children were allowed at these offices to accommodate childcare needs, with female supervisors available for support. This setup addressed most practical barriers women might face when starting work outside the home. We designed Rani Work, a smartphone-based gig work platform tailored for this study, in partnership with an NGO, Myna Mahila Foundation, which I founded in 2015. This setup gave us full control over experimental conditions, with the application operational only during office hours to ensure a controlled environment, even for home-based jobs. The piece-rate work, offered for 60 days, provided flexibility in work hours and load, with corresponding pay adjustments. Tasks involved speech recordings for identity verification, meeting the needs for equitable AI and diverse language datasets by companies like Microsoft and Amazon, aiming to reduce algorithmic gender bias and develop AI tools that empower local communities.

Women eligible for this study were married, unemployed (“housewives”), smartphone users, and capable of performing tasks requiring common skills (knowledge of speaking a local language), drawing from a pool of over 20,000 slum resettlement households. Treatment assignment was at the individual level and stratified by community and education level.

Primary Experiment: Job Offers by Location and Wage

In the primary experiment, we randomly assigned wives to either Work-from-Home (WfH) or Work-from-Office (WfO) jobs and cross-randomized across three monthly wage levels – up to Low ($60), Medium ($150), and High ($300) – and to a control group. The wages corresponded to two hours of daily work six days a week. The high wage, when maximized, exceeds the average monthly household income of $250.  Given the design similarity of home and office settings, any observed differences in job take-up could be due to residual practical (multitasking with housework) and intangible domesticity constraints.

First, we found that 42% of housewives, or 1,187 women, took up the job, with office-based job uptake at 27%, matching India’s female labor force participation rate. In contrast, home-based job uptake was significantly higher at 56%. Surprisingly, women’s job take-up rate did not increase at higher wages, even when exceeding their husbands' earnings. These results could be explained by conflicting positive and negative effects of offering higher wages to wives, resulting in a consistent take-up rate. We demonstrate that housewives are twice as likely to prefer low-paying home-based work than a five times higher-paying office job with minimal practical barriers.



Why is Take-Up from Home Much Higher, Even at Low Pay?

A parallel experiment with husbands showed more responsiveness to wages and no preference for the job location. This suggests that while wages may drive men's job choices, women's higher job take-up for home-based work likely stems from gender-specific factors.

Contrary to expectations, women with caregiving duties were just as likely to accept office-based work as those without. Hence, caregiving duties did not significantly deter women from child-friendly office jobs.

If it is not caregiving activities, what prevents housewives from working from these offices explicitly designed for them? We analyzed two potential gender-specific factors: (1) persisting practical constraints, such as the tangible demands of caregiving and other housework responsibilities, and (2) the impact of intangible domesticity constraints, such as the observability of employment. These intangible domesticity constraints refer to societal expectations that traditionally confine women to the domestic sphere (behind the purdah), often to uphold a positive “social signal” of a husband's provider status. These constraints can manifest through household-imposed restrictions on women's mobility and job observability, effectively limiting women's movement out of the house, and through psychosocial pressures that induce guilt in women considering working away from home and emphasize “good wife” behavior. We run a follow-up experiment to distinguish between the effects of practical and domesticity barriers.

Mechanism Experiment: Practical vs Domesticity Constraints

The mechanism experiment randomly re-assigned wives to either a Work-from-Home (WfH) or a Work-from-Office (WfO) job offer or one of three additional (“more costly") WfH variations. These new arms included a “WfH + No Multitasking" arm, restricting women from multitasking with housework and enforcing tasks to be completed in consecutive time blocks by introducing time-sensitive notifications, a “WfH + Check-in" arm, mandating an observable 2-minute daily office check-in that women with mobility restrictions for work may not be able to do, and a “WfH + Check-in + ID" arm enhancing the visibility of employment with a worker ID badge.

Our findings indicate that intangible domesticity constraints significantly influence job uptake among women, even more than multitasking with housework. We found a 23 pp gap between home and office job take-up, with 8 pp attributed to the inability to multitask and 12 pp to observability and mobility constraints, accounting for approximately 87% of the gap. The mobility constraint is likely enforced due to domesticity constraints as the lower take-up of “WfH + Check-in” arms was mainly observed for women from less progressive households, with husbands' permission often contingent on the job's location.

Policy Implications

We show how modified remote digital gig work—accessible via smartphones, based at or near home, and in line with intangible domesticity constraints—can engage more housewives in paid work. Our study demonstrates that improved childcare and transport policies, among other policies targeted to reduce practical barriers to women's employment, may not overcome all barriers preventing Indian women from working outside the home. Thus, bringing job opportunities into the domestic sphere while considering gender-specific preferences may be the most immediate path in closing the gender gap in labor participation. In another paper, we show how such flexible digital jobs can serve as a gateway for less flexible jobs in the future.

Suhani Jalota is a PhD student at Stanford University. [Twitter handle: @suhani_jalota]

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