Women, Girls and Domestic Labour

by Jenny Hoobler*

As a business professor who is interested in gender and diversity in organisations, I’ve recently expanded my research interests beyond typical conceptions of how women’s jobs interface with the home and family spheres - what we would typically call work-family balance. After being on a Fulbright research award at the University of Pretoria in South Africa last year, I have become interested in how employing domestic help (outsourcing cleaning, cooking, and child- and elderly-care) affects the degree to which higher socioeconomic status (SES) women can go “full bore” on their own careers. I argue that while domestic help may be a short-term solution to ease work-family conflict, domestic workers must sacrifice care in their own homes and for their own families — an idea I’ve been calling higher to lower SES women’s intersectional work-family conflict.

What is the size of the international domestic help workforce? What is clear is that the exact size of this workforce that is mostly female, mostly people of colour, and mostly lower SES,1 is quite unclear. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012) says that in 2010, almost two million jobs in the U.S. were in the home health and personal care industry. In Singapore, one study found that 82.4% of respondents employed maids for household chores, and 66.7% for childcare.2 In India, statistics vary widely — from 2.5 to 90 million domestic workers.3 The International Labour Organization estimates that there are between 52.6 and 100 million domestic workers worldwide, 80% of whom are women. In many countries the informal work arrangements common to domestic employment means that workers are undocumented citizens, and, by extension beyond the purview of not only census and workforce data, but more importantly, labour protections. They are a particularly vulnerable group, subject to wage and hour violations, but also abuse, neglect, and other human rights violations. According to the ILO, domestic workers are one of the occupational groups least protected by national labour laws.

Source: endtrafficking/Flickr
In my research on the link between higher SES career women and lower SES domestic helpers, implications for children surfaced. An example is the plight of women in developing nations who migrate to domestic worker jobs. Lan’s work tells the story of Filipina migrant workers who must sacrifice kinship bonds with their own children to care for higher SES women’s children.4 Parrenas has called this a care deficit — commoditised care is provided in the homes of higher SES women, for a wage, at the expense of care in lower SES women’s homes.5 Even more troubling is the number of children who are domestic workers themselves. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a person under the age of 18. By this definition, the ILO estimated, in 2008, over 16 million children worldwide were employed in domestic work, 11 million of whom were girls.

How can we work toward a world where the human rights of women employed in domestic work are not violated? As a business professor, I advocate for societal change for career women — to structure work in a way where work and family can both be attended to. If organizational expectations for “24/7” availability were tempered, higher SES women may not feel the pull toward outsourcing their domestic responsibilities. Yet domestic service jobs must not be taken away from lower SES women who rely on them for their livelihood. Advocating for structural change in the work lives of higher SES women must be accompanied by advocating for equal access to education and opportunities for lower class women and girls. In healthy economies, Gini coefficients (a common measure of nations’ income inequality) are small. The gulf between high and low resource households are smaller, and so too is the possibility of exploitation of domestic workers. From a legal standpoint, domestic help must not be treated as a “special,” that is, “informal” occupation, outside the scope of standard wage, hour, child labour, and safety legislation. But until the economic and legal environment improves, I ask higher SES women to be better bosses. Workplace factors like paid time off and sick days, merit raises, fair treatment, and respect that higher SES women value must be present in the jobs of the domestic workers they employ. Domestic work must become a viable occupation that allows women (and not girls) the wages and protections necessary to balance their own family and home responsibilities.


1 J Baxter, B Hewitt & M Western, ‘Who uses paid domestic labor in Australia? Choice and constraint in hiring household help’(2009) 15(1) Feminist Economics, 1-26.
2 J Lee Siew Kim & C S Ling, ‘Work-family conflict of women entrepreneurs in Singapore’ (2001) 16(5) Women in Management Review, 204-221.
3 Y Simonovsky, & M Luebker ‘Global and regional estimates on domestic workers’ (2011) Geneva, International Labour Office: Domestic Work Policy Brief.
4 P Lan, ‘Maid or madam? Filipina migrant workers and the continuity of domestic labor’ (2003) 17(2) Gender and Society, 187-208.
5 R S Parrenas, ‘Servants of globalization: Women, migration, and domestic work’ (2001) Stanford: Stanford University Press.



Jenny M. Hoobler (Ph.D., University of Kentucky) is Associate Professor of Management and Director, Center for Human Resource Management at University of Illinois at Chicago, where she has been on faculty for 8 years. Broadly, her research interests are in the areas of gender and diversity in the workplace, leadership behaviors, and work and family. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year on a Fulbright research award, studying women’s representation in leadership positions in South African corporations. She serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, and Personnel Psychology. She and her husband Ryan live with their dog, Indie, in Chicago’s Little Italy.


Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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