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Women and households in a changing world

Measurements and methodologies
The nature of change in households

Division for the Advancement of Women, United Nations Office at Vienna


The goal of development is material and non-material betterment for all people. Development implies change, but changes which do not ensure that the household, the basic social unit, and all individuals who are part of it share in this betterment are not development. It is therefore essential to assess development by looking at changes that affect the household.

Households are constituted as a means of meeting the basic material and nonmaterial needs of their members. The way they function is obviously affected by their different forms, internal organization, and external relationships. Changes in the structure of the household brought about by broader social and economic policies and events may affect its ability to meet these needs - which may themselves be altered and to maintain its underlying values, especially in periods of rapid change.

In their capacity as carers and domestic managers women play a very important role in enabling the household to adapt to change. Research has clearly shown that their coping strategies have been a major factor in adjustment in the face of the economic crises of the past decade. Indeed, economic and social change cannot be properly understood unless more is known about the situation of women, their role in households, and the impact of change on them. Tracing this impact through its effect on women offers important insights into the way the primary living unit works and highlights points at which intervention to support it might be necessary.

The problems faced by women in every region may vary more in degree than in kind. Whether in the European Community or Latin America, technological innovation and economic adjustment policies often displace women from the workforce. Households in every region may need more than one income in order to achieve an acceptable standard of living, but women's ability to join the labour force will be affected by the number of children they have, the domestic obligations they are expected to undertake, and the availability of social supports like dependent care facilities and health and family-planning services. Inequitably shared domestic responsibilities and the constraints of male-dominated systems inhibit women's participation in many of the benefits of change in every part of the world. Macro-level economic, political, social, and cultural changes affect the form and functioning of households everywhere. They inevitably alter the pattern of relationships within the household and its relationship with the rest of the society. Conversely, the accumulated response of households to this impact can be a major influence on the direction of change.

The household is thus a sensitive point of intervention for the implementation of positive change. As the micro-unit of reproduction, production, consumption, and socialization, it is not only where the real effect of macro-level policies can be best assessed - it may hold a key to their success. This is where the gender relations and social stereotypes that influence macro-level events are worked out in practical terms; where the flow and allocation of resources can determine levels of consumption, savings and investment, and labour-force participation which are crucial to economic growth; where the extent of its dependence on the scarce resources of the state will be based on its capacity to meet its members' needs.

Measurements and methodologies

It is not always easy to understand these changes and their impact. This is partly due to problems of measurement, and partly because of the concepts used to determine what is important and therefore should be measured. It is well known that the most commonly used indicators of development are based on productivity. The output of domestic units, like a farm or a shop, and of those household members who work in the formal economy, is included in this. The labour input, remunerated or unremunerated, involved in this production is also counted. However, other aspects of the household economy - unpaid domestic work and services, for example- are not included; nor are activities in the informal sector. While the household is sometimes used as a unit for measuring consumption and distribution, estimates of average household income are made by mathematical computation (dividing total national income by the number of households), which hides the variations between and within households and does nothing to challenge the assumption that economic changes and policies are gender-neutral.

The work done at the national and international level during the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) alerted people in all regions to the fact that policies based on data that did not take gender into account obscured the current needs and future potential of women. Their economic inputs in non-remunerated domestic or subsistence activities and the informal economic sector were overlooked. Aggregate labour-force figures hid the fact that women were usually clustered in the lowest-paid sectors or industries and that their overall prospects and pay were lower than those of their male counterparts. Failure to recognize the economic value and extraordinary extent of unpaid domestic and community services led to insensitive and ineffective policies and programmes and reinforced women's lower status in the household and in society. This raised two questions: what should be measured if women's economic participation is to be understood, and how does one obtain the information necessary to do this? It was not by chance that the need for statistics, indicators, and other empirical data disaggregated by gender permeated the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women that were adopted at the end of the Decade.

In spite of the considerable conceptual and practical difficulties, there had already been important improvements in relevant definitions and measurement techniques. In 1982 the Thirteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians adopted a recommendation for measuring the labour force in such a way that women's participation can be seen and assessed. Within the United Nations system proper, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) and the United Nations Statistical Office (UNSO) began a programme of training and research to develop statistics and indicators specifically concerned with the situation of women. By 1985, INSTRAW and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) were able to bring out a global statistical survey of women's economic activity by country and by region. Modifications of the international classification systems on which the collection and presentation of data are based have now been designed to make them more responsive to current realities. These improvements not only help in assessing women's situation and potential, but the differentiated data provide a more accurate basis for overall human resource and development planning.

By 1989 the UNSO was able to publish a Compendium of Statistics and Indicators on the Situation of Women. The compendium, a compilation of statistics and indicators from 178 countries and territories, includes disaggregated data on nine topics including population composition, distribution and change, households and families, housing and settlements, and political participation. The compendium was drawn up from a microcomputer database on Women's Indicators and Statistics (WISTAT), and represents the integrated work of a number of specialized United Nations agencies. It aims to provide both information and practical models, guidelines and indications of areas needing particular attention at the national level. WISTAT is being regularly updated, and while the quality and coverage is still very uneven, it is already used extensively in macro-level analyses of the interrelationship between different factors and the status of women.

However, even this markedly improved coverage still does not include most aspects of women's non-remunerated household work; nor does it address important differences between households. A clearer picture is needed to understand, support, or capitalize on the household as a unit of production and consumption. Whilst the problems and progress in measurement and definition apply to both remunerated and unpaid work, particular attention and extensive research within the other institutions has been focused on the latter. Means of measuring non-market or unpaid activity have been developed and refined in recent years. Household surveys, and specialized adaptations of them, and time-use studies have already yielded a wealth of data. Research based on interviews and observation of all household members have begun to elucidate intra-household relationships. Cohort studies which look at different generations and other methodologies based on life-course perspectives arc identifying changes through time and responses to them. Qualitative and attitudinal research is helping to explain the motivation of these responses; the results arc all the more important because they arc sometimes unexpected.

How to assign value to unpaid activities so they can be used for comparison and inclusion in national records is the subject of ongoing debate and experimentation by governments, institutions, and individual scholars. Two approaches seem to offer the most meaningful results: one imputes a value calculated on the market price of the domestic output of goods or services, if they had to be purchased, or the costs of the labour input if it were supplied by a paid worker; the other, based on opportunity costs, assigns a monetary value to non-remunerated work based on what the worker would earn if she or he were engaged in formal economic activity. Regardless of which method is used, including unpaid labour in national accounts would make a very big difference. If unpaid domestic and related work were included in the Gross National Product (GNP) of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, their GNP would be 30 to 50 per cent higher (Ironmonger, 1989). Extrapolations based on time-use surveys put the monetary value of domestic work in France at between 48 and 65 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product calculated on market activities. Cooking and dishwashing in Australian homes in 1975-1976 produced output that could be valued at only slightly less than the gross product of that country's manufacturing industries (Ironmonger and Sonius, 1989). If the same calculations were used to assign value to unpaid work in developing countries, where even more of women's work is unremunerated, the differences would be even greater.

Many reasons can be advanced for not including non-market activity in national accounts, including problems of measurement and definition and the fact that it would be impossible to readjust historical series. A promising solution could be the establishment of satellite accounts of household productivity defined and constructed in ways that facilitate linkages with national accounts data and so become an integral part of a complementary system.

Most of the published work in this field has been in and on developed countries, reflecting the greater availability of funding and trained personnel there. The country studies presented in this book arc therefore a significant contribution to a growing corpus of research that can facilitate more effective policies founded on an understanding of the pivotal economic role of women and of the household.

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