Tech solutions to household labour are also problems

Just to be clear, the term ‘family’ in this post refers to a cis-het nuclear family unit.

Tanvi Deshpande writing for Indiaspend, June 12, 2022:

The Union government’s ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) aims to provide tap water to every household in rural India by 2024. Until now, 50% of households have a tap connection, an improvement from August 2019, when the scheme started and 17% of households had a tap connection. The mission’s dashboard shows that in Take Deogao Gram Panchayat that represents Bardechi Wadi, only 32% of the households have tap connections. Of these, not a single one has been provided to Pardhi’s hamlet.

This meant, for around five months every summer, women and children would rappel down a 60-foot well and spend hours waiting for water to seep into the bottom. In India, filling water for use at home is largely a woman’s job. Globally, women and girls spend 200 million hours every day collecting water, and in Asia, one round trip to collect water takes 21 minutes, on average, in rural areas.

The water pipeline has freed up time for Bardechi Wadi’s women and children but patriarchal norms, lack of a high school in the village and of other opportunities for development means that these free hours have just turned into more time for household chores, our reporting found.

Now these women don’t face the risk of death while fetching water but, as Deshpande has written, the time and trouble that the water pipeline has saved them will now be occupied by new chores and other forms of labour. There may have been a time when the latter might have seemed like the lesser of those two evils, but it is long gone. Today, in the climate crisis era – which often manifests as killer heatwaves in arid regions that are already short on water – the problem is access to leisure, to cooling and to financial safeguards. When women are expected to do more chores because they have the time, they lose access to leisure, which is important at least to cool off, but better yet because it is a right per se (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 24).

This story is reminiscent of the effects of the introduction of home appliances into the commercial market. I read a book about a decade ago that documented, among other things, how the average amount of time women (in the US) spent doing household chores hadn’t changed much between the 1920s and the 2000s, even though it coincided wholly with the second industrial revolution. This was because – as in the case of the pipeline of Bardechi Wadi – the purchase and use of these devices freed up women’s time for even more chores. We need the appliances as much as we need the pipeline, just that men should also do household chores. However, the appliances also presented and present more problems than those that pertain to society’s attitudes towards how women should spend their time.

1. Higher expectations – With the availability of household appliances (like the iron box, refrigerator, washing machine, dish washer, oven, etc.), the standards for various chores shot up as did what we considered to be comfortable living – but what we expected of women didn’t change. So suddenly the women of the house were also responsible for ensuring that the men’s shirts and pants were all the more crinkle-less, that food was served fresh and hot all the time, etc. as well as to enliven family life by inventing/recreating food recipes, serving and cleaning up, etc.

2. Work + chores – The introduction of more, and more diverse, appliances into the market, aspirations and class mobility together paralleled an increase in women’s labour-force participation through the 20th century. But before these women left for their jobs and after they got home, they still had to household chores as well – including cooking and packing lunch for themselves and for their husbands and/or children, doing the laundry, shopping for groceries, etc.

3. Think about the family – The advent of tech appliances also foisted on women two closely related responsibilities: to ensure the devices worked as intended and to ensure they fit with the family-unit’s ideals and aspirations. As Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite wrote in 2016: “The automatic processes of programming the coffeemaker, unlocking an iPad with a fingerprint, or even turning on the light when you get home are the result of years of marketing that create a household problem (your home is too dark, your family too far-flung, your food insufficiently inventive), solves it with a new product, and leaves women to clean up the mess when the technology fails to deliver on its promises”.

In effect, through the 20th century, industrialisation happened in two separate ways within the household and without. To use writer Ellen Goodman’s evocative words from a 1983 article: “At the beginning of American history …, most chores of daily life were shared by men and women. To make a meal, men chopped the wood, women cooked the stew. One by one, men’s tasks were industrialized outside the home, while women’s stayed inside. Men stopped chopping wood, but women kept cooking.”

The diversity of responsibilities imposed by household appliances exacts its own cost. A necessary condition of men’s help around the house is that they – we – must also constantly think about which task to perform and when, instead of expecting to be told what to do every time. This is because, by expecting periodic reminders, we are still forcing women to retain the cognitive burden associated with each chore. If you think you’re still helping by sharing everything except the cognitive burden, you’re wrong. Shifting between tasks affects one’s ability to focus, performance and accuracy and increases forgetfulness. Psychologists call this the switch cost.

It is less clear to me than it may be to others as to the different ways in which the new water pipeline through Bardechi Wadi will change the lives of the women there. But without the men of the village changing how they think about their women and their ‘responsibilities to the house’, we can’t expect anything meaningful. At the same time, the effects of the climate crisis will keep inflating the price these women pay in terms of their psychological, physical and sexual health and agency.