Dodging the Chores? Indian Men and Household Work

by Pallavi Banerjee

Earlier this month, in The Atlantic, Matt Phillips reported (here) that Indian men do the least housework in the world. Phillips based his findings on Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data on how much housework men do on an average daily basis in 30 countries. At the top of the list was Slovenia where men spend an average of 114 minutes doing housework. Men in India claimed the lowest position performing on average only 19 minutes of housework everyday. The article does not proffer any explanations for why men do more or less housework in certain countries.  What structural factors may be at play that supports this unequal division of labor in Indian families?Banerjee_media response image_March 2014

In absence of such explanations it would be easy to assume that gender inequality is embedded in the Indian culture – an assumption that reinforces stereotypes and hides the structural inequalities at work. Unfortunately, besides the recent OECD data, there is hardly any research measuring men’s or any dimension of housework in India. However, there is research, including my own, that has systematically looked at U.S. immigrant Indian men’s contribution to housework with equally alarming results. More importantly, these findings illuminate how structural factors like availability of poor feminized domestic labor workforce in India and governmental polices 0f the U.S. are reinforcing these patterns of inequality.

I studied two kinds of Indian immigrant families: 1) Families where the men, mainly high-tech workers, were the main migrant and the only breadwinners with wives on dependent visas who were legally disallowed from working for pay in the U.S. due to their visa status and 2) Families where women who were immigrant nurses were the main migrants and breadwinners with husbands on dependent visas. I interviewed 45 couples representing the two family forms. Women in both families did the major share of housework, ranging from 40 hours a week to 100+ hours a week if they had young children. Not surprisingly, dependent women did more housework compared to the working women.

While men in both families refused to count time spent in household work, the men in families with dependent wives admitted to not contributing enough to housework besides occasionally cooking.  They conveyed guilt and remorse that their educated wives spent their time doing “daily dirty work.” Anil indicated that he felt horrible that his highly educated wife now did the “maid’s work.” He expressed shame and responsibility for this downward mobility. For Anil, these feelings did not emerge from a sense of gender egalitarianism, but from a fall in class status; he no longer could afford house help in the U.S. like he could in India.

When the families had children, the men lamented having inadequate time with their children because of their work hours. Ravi stated, “if my white boss’s dog gets sick, he takes off at midday but if my child is sick I cannot stay home because they know I have a wife who is forced to be at home.” Here Ravi hints at the gendered expectation enforced at work due to the limitations embedded within the visa statuses.

In families where women were the main breadwinners as nurses, despite the visa enforced status reversal, the traditional gendered division of labor changed only in the context of childcare. These women relegated their position of power within the household based on the guilt caused by being absentee mothers and non-traditional wives. They voluntarily performed second shift labor. The dependent husbands refused to take on a “wifely” or “househusband” role, but they were not resistant to adopting the role of the primary caregiver for the children.  They assumed this role out of necessity more so than desire. Framed this way, men justify their “nontraditional” role in the family by describing themselves as “sacrificial fathers.”  In both types of families, the men showed some willingness to perform childcare but discarded the idea of engaging in the routine household work; they saw that work as work for their wives or women domestic workers – a taken for granted aspect of their socio-economic middle class lives in India prior to migration.

What does my research on U.S. highly skilled Indian immigrants have to do with Matt Phillips’ Atlantic article? I’d argue quite a bit and more. While the data presented in the article is alarming, it only paints a partial picture of Indian men dodging household chores. When Indian husbands do not do housework, who picks up the slack? Is it only their wives or the millions of marginalized and underprivileged women who work as domestic helpers in middle class and upper middle class households in India?  The findings from my study suggest, perhaps the latter. Who then does the housework and care work in the families of the domestic helpers? My work complements the Atlantic piece in that it shows gendered expectations are not only deeply embedded into the fabric of Indian familial interaction, but these expectations are also class based.  Most importantly my research shows how the U.S. is not off the hook. As Indian families migrate to the U.S. on high-skilled and dependent visas, the U.S. visa policies enforce rather than dismantle these gendered expectations keeping gender inequity intact.

Pallavi Banerjee, Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Sociology Vanderbilt University, pallavi.banerjee@vanderbilt.edu.

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2 thoughts on “Dodging the Chores? Indian Men and Household Work

  1. Pallavi, very eruditely put. Given that men would rather feel.depressed at having “fallen in class” than help out their wives, what could help to prevent such mentality in future and ALLOW gender equity in minds of men? How can US govt help? The US govt cannot offer marital counselling before issueing visas , nor can it change the class based status if.domestic help in India.in fact, as India gets out of poverty, Indians in India may find themselves without affordable house help!!!

  2. hello Pallavi, nicely written article. I too am working on a project on the sharing of domestic chores in india and in france. could you please help me out with some statistical data on the sharing of housework in indian couples for the years before the OECD report (2014). Thanks.

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