Marriage, motherhood and masculinity in the global economy

This article is adapted from Naila Kabeer’s longer paper for the Institute of Development Studies paper:Marriage, motherood and masculinity in the global economy: reconfigurations of personal and economic life (IDS Working Paper No 290, 2007)


The processes of globalisation sweeping across the world today are being driven by neo-liberal ideologies which celebrate untrammelled market forces, the free movement of capital and the sovereignty of the citizen-consumer. Labour remains subject to many more restrictions than capital, but it too has become a global resource. As governments are increasingly forced to pursue competitive advantage in the global economy through the construction of flexible labour markets, in which workers can be hired and fired with impunity, women have emerged as the flexible labour force par excellence.

Women workers are less likely to be organised than men, they can be paid less on the grounds of their purported secondary earner status, and they have less bargaining power because of the limitations placed on their labour-market options by their unpaid domestic responsibilities. There are now increasing numbers of women from all age groups in the labour market, even in contexts where male employment is stagnant or declining; but they remain confined to the lower paid, more casual segments of the informal economy.

There continues to be a great deal of debate about whether women’s entry into paid work represents empowerment or exploitation. Far less attention has been paid to how men have responded to the challenge posed by women’s paid work to their traditional roles as family breadwinner. It is clear that male-breadwinner ideologies are both pervasive and persistent, meaning that some amount of resistance from men – particularly those who have lost out in the shift to flexible labour markets – can be expected. This is certainly the story that is emerging from studies around the world – but with one interesting caveat.

This is that it is mainly men in their roles as husbands – rather than as fathers, brothers or sons – who are the main sources of this resistance; and their resistance is aimed at paid work by their wives. It appears that male identity and power relations are far more closely bound up with the appearance, if not the fact, of women’s financial dependence within marriage than in other gender relationships within the family. The complex negotiations through which women and men are attempting to come to terms with women’s increasingly visible role as breadwinners is leading to unexpected reconfigurations of personal and family life across the global economy. It is not yet clear whether these reconfigurations represent a crisis in the relations of social reproduction or a transition to new forms (see Saskia Sassen, “Women on the move“, Frieze 103 [March 2007]).

The power of choice

On the one hand, most married women from lower-income groups, particularly those with children, simply do not earn enough to set themselves up as independent households without suffering considerable economic hardship. Consequently, many women appear to be pursuing strategies of “wielding and yielding”, making concessions and compromises in order to take up paid work without jeopardising their marriages. Continued responsibility for a major share of unpaid domestic work, including care of children and the elderly, appears to be the most frequent concession yielded by women. They are permitted to go out to work as long as their husbands are not required to shoulder a greater share of this unpaid labour.

On the other hand, not all women are willing to accept the unfairness of this compromise. Some have used their newfound earning power to renegotiate unsatisfactory marital relationships, forcing some degree of change in the division of domestic responsibilities. Others have left to set up their own households with their children, leading to rising rates of female households across the world. Such households are often poorer on average than others but their children are not necessarily more disadvantaged, since their mothers have greater control over the use of their earnings.

However, regardless of whether they stay or go, working mothers face the problem of reconciling their childcare and domestic responsibilities with their attempts to earn an income. In the absence of male support within the family or public support from policy-makers for their unpaid work, they have to find other ways of managing their dual responsibilities. Some simply work longer hours so that the “double shift” is becoming an increasingly worldwide phenomenon. Some take their children to work with them in factories, on building sites, by the roadside or in fields – with the attendant hazards to the child’s well-being; others look to family members, usually female, for help; still others, those who can afford this option, turn to the market for paid domestic workers.

As women in the more prosperous countries move up the occupational ladder, it is women from the poorer countries of the world who have responded to this rising demand for paid help in the home. For these women, economic migration appears not only to be providing new opportunities for paid work, but also escape routes from abusive husbands or oppressive in-laws. There is a strong association between female migration and marital breakdown which is absent in the case of male migration. However, migrant women are also mothers. They have chosen to look after other people’s children, enduring long absences from their own in order to assure them a better future. It is generally their own mothers rather than their husbands who take care of their children during these absences.

Women are also responding to the imbalances of power and labour within marriage by postponing marriage or not marrying at all. While this trend has been evident in the OECD countries for some time, the “flight from marriage” is now also evident in those parts of the world, such as east and southeast Asia, where marriage has traditionally been a universal norm for both men and women. In addition, while declining rates of fertility in developing countries have been welcomed as evidence of the final stages of demographic transition, the decline in fertility rates has gone so far in some of the more prosperous countries of their world as to give rise to fears about “depopulation”.

For instance, the “birth strike” has led to less than net replacement rates in some of the traditionally pro-natalist countries of southern Europe, such as Italy and Spain, where financial incentives are being offered to women to have a second child. This may not address the core problem however: studies suggest that childless women are most likely to have a child if the workplace becomes more supportive of working mothers, and women with one child are more likely to have a second if their husbands take on a greater share of the housework.

The cost of change

The rise of the female breadwinner has had two other unexpected impacts on global trade. First, for some men in the world’s wealthier countries, women’s growing economic independence seems to be fulfilling their worst fears that the home-loving, compliant wives of their dreams may – at least in their own countries – be a vanishing species. The rise of the global “mail-order bride” service is one response to these fears. A sizeable share of this trade in mail-order brides is between men from the affluent countries in search of compliant brides among women from poorer countries who in turn are looking for well-heeled husbands who can give them the security the men from their own countries cannot provide. The irony of this industry is that it frequently matches some of the most traditionally-minded men in wealthy countries with some of the more enterprising women in poor ones.

The second unexpected outcome of the changes discussed above is the phenomenal growth and globalisation of the sex trade. Once again, it is women from the poorer countries of the world who are the main sources of supply. In a world where men have become increasingly less secure about their identities and privileges, and women have become increasingly more assertive about their place in society, prostitution offers men the possibility of sexual encounters that are both free of fears of rejection and the temporary restoration of more traditional relations of male dominance.

In addition, however, the growth of the global sex trade has also been fuelled by the same ideology of consumer sovereignty and free markets that is driving globalisation today: the idea (as one male as one client was quoted as saying in a recent British study) that “money should be able to buy anything and anyone”. In the new global economy, there appears to be shrinking space for the price-less aspects of life.


Originally published on Open Democracy

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