Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Knowledge is based on experience and experience is never gender neutral. Hence it is imperative that any body of knowledge must be inclusive of the experiences of the entire human population. Looking at the experience of only one half of the human race leads to the generation of fractional knowledge. Economics is a victim, so to say, of such partial knowledge, much of its analysis being largely a reflection of men’s experiences and an echo of men’s voices. In short Economics is largely androcentric and has been profoundly prejudiced by the ‘high value’ masculine attitude. This is evident from the very assumptions in the subject which is then bolstered together by male centered methodology.

Economics is based on the concept of cut throat competition and is obsessed with the profit motive. The classical writers like Adam Smith defined the capitalist market system and spoke vividly about the market mechanism which was termed the operation of the ‘invisible hand’…well the title of my article however does not suggest the working of this invisible hand (which is nothing but the price/market mechanism) which drives every decision in the jungle of wild competitors. What I intend to highlight is the working of the invisible economy which operates because of the invisible hands that drives it. No one sees them work - a population largely taken for granted, sidelined and under-represented in the national income accounts. Well I mean none other than THE WOMAN.
Since much of women’s labour is not marketed and economics specializes in the market economy, they get sidelined. They “labour for love” and this labour cannot be monetized. However the very fact that women work in this manner enables the man to be the bread winner. This however is not recognized. If these women did not exist or did no such labour out of love all household work like cooking caring cleaning (the therefore three Cs), or work such as provisioning for food fodder and fuel(the three Fs) would have to be paid for. Technically speaking therefore women are providing what one can term as LMC or Lifetime Maintenance Contract for their families. If it were not for the social costs they bear it would become extremely expensive for the man to be the breadwinner. In the real world there is a constant interplay between the production economy and the economy concerned with rendering reproduction, care and human welfare. Diane Elson has fittingly defined this, “we have two economies: the economy in which people earn wages in order to produce things to be sold on the market or financed through taxation. This is the economy based on goods, which every one considers ‘the economy’. On the other hand we have the veiled economy, the invisible one, the one devoted to care” What separates the two economies is the fact that domestic work is tremendously unwieldy to compute. Such work is generally carried out by girls and women inside the house and is only indirectly connected to the market. It is synchronized by ideologies, traditional, cultural and religious norms and of the society and is not assigned any pecuniary value. Household work is largely indivisible and not paid for. Indivisibility is coupled with patriarchal ideologies wherein only women are allocated the responsibility of providing the nurture and maintenance of the household. All such work which forms the major part of the embodiment of human capital is not accounted for at all - after all it is embodiment that flows from love, and love will not remain love if it is monetized!!!
Further even if they work for wages it is largely in the unorganized sector where again there are lacunae in the counting of the work done by them. Women hence get left out since much of their labour is contributed to the unorganized sector. It is non remunerative as there is an abundance of such labour available to perform such tasks freely. Very often women are the major or the only breadwinners in their families. However the meaning of the term worker tends to omit part time and seasonal workers, hence such women get counted out. These women are therefore veiled in data as portrayed by Ela Bhatt when she coined the term ‘Statistical Purdah’ to explain how women workers are under counted by the census and NSSO operations in India. These are the invisible hands in reality!! Not the market mechanism as promulgated by Adam Smith! Women’s work has always been looked at as secondary. Workers who earn just pin money. Yet without this contribution many a home will crumble under the yoke of insufficient finance. Many a home will come to a stand still if these invisible hands stop working! But ‘love’ will not stop these hands! Should I say love that is voluntary or love that is imposed artificially by moral cultural and traditional codes!
For most people and also the average enumerators women normally are housewives even if they work outside their homes for wages. Though the Census the NSSO and the ILO have widened the definition of the worker to include many tasks done by women, yet the mindset of such officials and policy makers needs total overhauling! There has to be the consciousness within these data office workers, as well as theorists and policy makers to recognize and accept women as equally productive workers. There has to be a revolution in the thinking process of both men and women.
If the working of the invisible hand is extolled on a pedestal in the Smithian system, is it not just and fair that these INVISIBLE HANDS are also duly recognized, for the work they do to keep the cogs of the economy functioning smoothly?

Dr. Crystal David John
Post Graduate Head
Dept. of Economics
Stella Maris College
Chennai 600 086


  1. Your concept of invisible hands gives a fresh new spin to Smith's phrase ! While economists need to take into account gendered experiences in research, they must also be careful not to simply 'add women and stir'. Women's issues need to be built into every step of the research design rather than as an afterthought...
    Keep writing Ma'am

  2. Thank you - i do agree with you that women should not be an after though as it is in many cases and policy measures - there is a need to integrate and re theorize so that such integration can take place in reality.

  3. Wonderfully expressed. I think along the same lines every single day. We all work 5/6 days a week. Whereas, someone like my mom, who is a homemaker, works all seven days to put the food on the table.

    Where is the appreciation or recognition for such productivity? It is, more often than not, seen as simple-minded activities.

  4. Very well put.I came across an interesting book about women’s work around the time when Adam Smith promulgated his views on the world. The book is called-The Invisible Woman: Aspects Of Women's Work In Eighteenth-century Britain and is available on Google books. There is a whole chapter on Labour and Servitude of women in Scotland (where Smith is from).Somehow,I feel Smith can’t be blamed for his andro-centric views because ideas are shaped by what people see around them (or don’t see) and what they are numb to seeing around them. Women won the battle for suffrage and civil liberties way after Smith. It is quite despairing that women are still fighting for equal opportunity/ recognition and their identity in different spaces. I agree with Hegel (though I don’t know much about his work) that ideas and human societal change itself is influenced by history. Economics was formally born at the wrong time in history and refuses to evolve in the face of changing circumstances (to be more inclusive of gender and the environment, for example). Somehow I feel this inertia is not because of lack of intellectual progress but because certain ideas are promoted aggressively by politics (the powerful elder brother of economics).I feel that Feyerbend's ideas can be extended to economics as well and any revisionism in the fundamental principles of economics ‘‘can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism''. Economists themselves are trapped by this idea of measuring everything not realizing that the things they can’t measure, exist and they are blinding themselves to it. This, leads to a skewed view of development, welfare and progress. Ignoring 1/2 of the world’s population does not seem like a smart idea but trapped as we are by our own ideas and methods; it will take a while before the mainstream recognizes what they are missing out on. This blindness is an indication how badly we need support from other fields. The problems of today cannot be solved by experts and especially not by economists-there is a need for collaboration with other fields and open discussion. Economists should stop writing for each other and start writing for everyone so that they can benefit from the perspectives of sociologists,psychologists,historians,philosophers,biologists,scientists to understand issues .I think this is specially necessary for the Indian story because issues here are pretty complex and riddled with ''confounding factors''.
    Maybe then, the new Adam Smiths will have a better picture of the world they live in and won’t be able to ignore women in servitude in their backyards while making sense of the world.

  5. Well analysed dear ann and as you say it will take a while ... there is a need for theorists and policy makers to get sensitized to these issues. Hope some day it happens and hope people like you who have been trained in Stella Maris College will set the ball rolling :)

  6. M'am with your article you have converted the phrase 'Invisible hands" into an oxymoron, but very rightly cited, it is one. Women have emerged as an independent class of individuals striving to be not only equal but better than men in a lot of spheres, but the number is few. It is in a way their responsibility to pave the way for others, as this is the best time to step up, when the views of society are in the process of getting more liberal. Only a woman can work 24/7;365 days with the same or higher level of efficieny both at work place and at home,ao much so that our favourite diminishing marginal productivity theory may be at a loss to explain how?
    If a woman can manage a household effectively, a household being the smallest unit of any economy, with education and required skills, definetly it puts them at a better footing to manage the economy, to pursue a career in policy making. I think, its time for a new school of economic thought to evolve, with men and women economists, politician etc. of this age specifically as partners to solve the issues arising today. Our age old methods of national income accounting, other theories should be imparted but as a base to build on and improve not to follow blindly without convention and understanding.

  7. I dunno if i ve understood the crux of this article rightly but, I personally feel its the type of job that makes the difference whether its been accounted for or not. Hearing the practical stories , I feel an economy like the one in Mumbai is the best example where not all the work is being accounted for. Yet, people do gain a lot from it. For example, a man who had been collecting and disposing the old papers and things, own much costlier houses than the ones going for a proper job. That, old paper vala is not exactly being taxed. Similarly, the dabba valas and various other part time works.

    When it comes to household work, yes , its mostly the women who do it. As its mentioned in the article, if the women of the house is paid , then it does not come out of love for the family. The maids who have been paid for their work , are not exactly accounted. Whether such a work is done by men or women it wont be accounted for. So, accounting for such jobs ( meager works) should be the focus (whether its men or women).

    Unfortunately, most such jobs are done by the women only. To attain the equal proportion between the men and the women who do such jobs is not easy. It will take probably generations for that. On the other hand, such a shift, might do a justice to the economy, but not exactly to the culture and tradition. So, unless and until there is a mutual contribution and understanding between economics, sociology, traditions, acceptance from the people, etc such a balance cannot be attained.

    So, I would say, accounting the meager works should be the focus. Whether its done by men or women, its invisible hands. And this can include only the maids who are paid. There is no point in measuring the services done out of love by the member to their family.

  8. If you pay ur mom for cooking for you it than demolishes love, but can we not have surrogate pricing mechanism to at least account for the work done. paper vala and daba valas - if in the income bracket should definitely be taxed but again it is the failure of ECONOMICS per se to try and rope these and others such as them into the tax net - the reason being they belong to the unorganized sector and self employed sector. don't u think then that something is definitely wrong with the discipline? there is a lack of tools to measure such jobs leave alone taxing them. The most difficult task however is to enumerate women working in the home or outside the home. statements such as "my wife is not working" implying (a home maker )should be totally erased from our vocabulary - i term them the Invisible hand in this little essay. identifying the daba vala the paper vala or the rag picker to count them in will still not solve our problem of not counting the so called NON WORKING HOUSEWIFE WHO WORKS OFTEN 24X7 :)

  9. Hello Mam,

    Are you the same Joan Fernandez Mam who used to teach English Literature in IT College. I was your student in 1998-2001 batch.

    Dr Bodhan, Dr Massey, Dr Chakravarthy and Dr Kapahi were my other teachers.

    Best regards.


  10. Well Joan is my class mate I am a student of IT COLLEGE -- I did Economics and taught Economics there