Invisible subsidies: women’s undervalued contribution to the economy


(It) “takes the work of many people to get the egg from the hen to its consumer” ( Weaver, Rock & Kunsterer, 1997)

Gaya’s intro: I am delighted to include a good-read from a member of the Peradeniya University Faculty. I welcome Dileni’s writings in her plain English style which is easy to read and understand for the non academic readers. iSrilankan would love to feature diverse, informed and insightful writings from independent writers on issues facing women, men and children in Sri Lankan society today.

The idea that women subsidize men by their unpaid work has been around for a long time. Women’s unpaid work includes such work as growing crops in a home garden, helping out at the family “boutique” or kade, or similar unpaid work in a family enterprise. But, what about the housework and child-rearing that women typically do? This work, too has been long recognized by social scientists as unpaid work.

Take the example of an ordinary egg, laid by a hen

This example illustrates the point very well. It “takes the work of many people to get the egg from the hen to its consumer.” So, where does the production process end and consumption begin? Did production stop when it was bought in the shop? But someone must take it home. Is transporting it from shop to home very different from transporting it in the earlier stages of its journey? At home, someone must unpack it. ( Achieving Broad-Based Sustainable: Governance, Environment and Growth with Equity by economists Jim Weaver and Mike Rock and sociologist Ken Kusterer, (Kumarian Press, West Hartford, CT,1997, p. 196-7).

Is this work? “It was, when the egg was put into storage two or three times before, so it must be work now”, say Weaver, Rock and Kusterer. “Later, someone takes the egg out of kitchen storage and makes herself an omelet. Is that production or consumption? What if a woman who doesn’t even like omelets makes it for her husband? In both cases, it’s still processing, still adding value, still production. Once finally readied to eat, the food must be served.  Even when the food is set on plates in front of their faces, some members of the household, infants and the infirm, need more work from someone before they can consume it.”

Marry your Butler

Another succinct expression is “Marry your butler (or your research assistant) and share your income equally instead of paying him by the hour. The size of G.D.P. will shrink. Divorce him, and G.D.P. is likely to expand.” (New York Times, May 28, 2012). Gender Discrimination, Occupational Segregation and invisible subsidies.

However, this is not the only way in which women subsidize the rest of society. They do so when they are paid less than they ought to be. Empirical studies in economics that examine wage gaps for evidence of discrimination are based on the idea that people with similar job-relevant characteristics (schooling, experience, training) will receive similar wages in the absence of discrimination.

If the wages of one group (e.g. women, blacks) is systematically lower than the wages of another group (e.g. men, whites) who are otherwise identical in terms of things that matter to wage determination, this group is considered underpaid, and the precise amount by which they are underpaid can be calculated using econometric methods.

Occupational Segregation

A more subtle way in which women (and other groups) are underpaid is through occupational segregation. This term is used by economists to refer to a situation where the representation of certain groups (e.g. women, minorities) is disproportionately high in a particular occupation.

Usually there is no discrimination between groups (e.g. women and men) within the occupation, rather, wages for all in that occupation are low if there are relatively more women than men in it. The classic textbook examples are of teaching and nursing, where low wages co-exist with a high proportion of women in these occupations.

Invisible subsidies in the education sector in Sri Lanka


In a carefully researched and analytically tight article (The Island, August 2, 2012), Prof. Carmen Wickramagamage argues that women in Sri Lanka have benefited immensely from state investments in education. Prof. Wickramagamage points out (supported by research highlighted in this column, July 12, 2012) that along with the gains in female life expectancy, free education provided the impetus to families to educate their female children. As a result, women outnumber men in almost all levels and spheres of education (with some notable exceptions).

Nearly 2 out of 3 women engage in unpaid work at home

While this is an achievement to be proud of, it would also be interesting to examine to what extent women have subsidized the provision of general education in this country, and how effective this subsidy might be. Sri Lankan women have higher educational attainments than in many countries around the world (more girls complete compulsory schooling than boys and more girls are enrolled in secondary school than boys). They also have very low labour force participation rates. In fact, Sri Lanka had the lowest female labour force participation rate (35%) out of fifteen countries including Cuba (43%), China (68%), Kenya (61%), Malaysia (44%), Maldives (55%), Thailand (64%), Uruguay (55%) and Zimbabwe(83%) that have similar youth female literacy rates to Sri Lanka (World Development Indicators, 2009 and 2010). A 35% labour force participation means that almost two out of every three women over the age of 15 in Sri Lanka engages in unpaid work at home.

There is also a high likelihood that this mother has completed the compulsory schooling cycle and had some secondary education, and therefore to be the primary educational caregiver (e.g. helping children with homework, etc.).

A recent impact evaluation by the World Bank and EFA-FTI Secretariat (2011) of a Programme for School Improvement (PSI) which controlled for parents education found that mother’s education had a stronger impact on Grade 4 Test Scores of Math and English, than father’s education. This suggests that the benefits that women get from education, spill over to the next generation, and provides some support for the speculation that there is an invisible subsidy in terms of women’s unpaid work in supporting primary education at home.

Women are the majority of teachers in government schools

While there is no evidence of gender discrimination among teachers, in Sri Lanka, as in many countries, women form the majority of teachers in government schools (which comprise 91 percent of all schools in the country) who are poorly paid. This was confirmed by Minister Bandula Gunawardena who noted recently that principals and teachers do not receive big incentives compared with other state employees, they only receive self-satisfaction. (Daily News, August 3, 2012).

The extent to which teachers are poorly paid is clearly depicted in the accompanying graph which shows that compared to other government sector employees, the real value of teachers’ salaries have deterioriated drastically in recent times (World Bank, Treasures of the Education system in Sri Lanka, 2007, p.48).

What are the consequences of gender segregation in the state education sector? Does lower pay also suggest lower productivity? Do the women who provide “subsidized” education provide lower quality education during school hours in order to earn private tuition after-school? Do women who get transferred to remote schools use the opportunity to get out of their transfer by conveniently timed pregnancies? While these are some of prevalent perceptions, whatever evidence that exists to support these suggestions is anecdotal.

Poor quality of School Education (though improving )

However, recent World Bank reports on Education that examine the quality of school education provide some evidence that school quality is poor (though improving), and that remote areas which face shortages of teachers also do worse in terms of educational outcomes.

In addition, a 2008 National Institute of Education study assessment of GCE O/L teachers in schools with poor GCE O/L Maths results found that as many as 36 percent of teachers from the Western Province and 51 percent of teachers in other provinces failed to get more than 50%; a 2010 Dept. of Examinations test of GCE O/L Maths teachers found that while the majority passed Paper I, only 42.5% were able to score over 80 out of 100 on paper II.

What does all this mean? Do teachers really provide an implicit subsidy to the rest of society, by being underpaid? Or is society paying for it in terms of poor educational outcomes? Is it a case of “pay peanuts and you will get monkeys”? Will the converse work? Will higher salaries attract better teachers? Or do the existing teachers simply need more training (teachers trained at National Colleges of Education performed the best in the DOE study cited above) and better facilities and other inputs? This column raises more questions than it answers, but it is clear that these are questions worthy of our attention.

Dileni Gunewardena is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and Statistics at the University of Peradeniya.

This feature was first published in the Daily News September 13, 2012, scroll down the link. Images except graph above credited to Kalpa Rajapaksha

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