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Can This Indian Detergent Ad Change The Way We Talk About Gender Equity?

“My little baby girl, she’s grown up so much. She used to play ‘house’ and now she manages a household. Manages an office. I’m so proud . . . and I’m so sorry.”

By Ruchika Tulshyan

Growing up in a South Asian household in Singapore, I never saw my father get up to grab his own glass of water. It was my mother’s “job” to serve him. He would always eat dinner first, and then when he was done, my mother would sit down for her meal. My father would proudly proclaim that he had no idea where anything was in the kitchen, and that he couldn’t even boil an egg. I observed this same dynamic, time and again, in the homes of my friends and other family members.

Nearly three decades later, not much has changed. Still today, across most South Asian households, housework is almost always considered a woman’s work. A recent Nielsen India survey found that 76% of Indian men believe laundry is a woman’s job, and 68% would prefer to watch TV over doing the laundry.

I considered myself a feminist as a child, and have lived independently in various parts of the Western world. But the inequity I saw as a child left an indelible imprint in my mind about gender roles.

When I first got married, I was on autopilot when I made dinner and insisted that my husband eat his meal before me.

“What are you doing? Why aren’t we eating together?” he asked, shocked.

I didn’t have an answer. I was stunned as I watched him help me chop, wash, and clean up. During one early visit, my mother-in-law stopped me as I warmed up rice from the day before for myself to eat, while the men ate the fresh rice we’d made that day. “Are you not human?” she asked. “Why do women have to eat old food while men don’t?” I didn’t have an answer then, either. I just assumed this was culturally acceptable behavior among South Asian couples like us.

A recent Nielsen India survey found that 76% of Indian men believe laundry is a woman’s job, and 68% would prefer to watch TV over doing the laundry. Click To Tweet

That was four years ago — and it’s taken me the entire time since then to undo the messages I learned about gender roles growing up.

All of which may explain why I openly cry every time I watch this new viral advertisement from the Indian detergent company Ariel.

In the video, a father watches his adult daughter return home after a day at the office, cleaning up after her child and making tea for her husband who is watching TV, all while talking on the phone about emailing a presentation (presumably to someone at work).

The father narrates (translation from Hindi is mine):

He goes on to apologize for never telling her that housework is both a man’s job and a woman’s job. But how could he, he laments, when he never helped her mother with housework?

“What you saw, is what you learned. Your husband must have seen the same thing growing up . . . from every dad who set the wrong example, I’m sorry.”

He vows to make a change, and the commercial ends on an encouraging note — no subtitles necessary.

Do I think a commercial that sells laundry detergent can change the world? I’m not that naïve. P&G, the behemoth that owns the Ariel brand, likely knew this commercial — complete with the hashtag #ShareTheLoad — would go viral among the millennial, social-media-savvy crowd in India. And they were correct.

But I do believe this Ariel advert successfully captures a reality faced not just in India, but all over the world. Women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid work, like housework and caregiving, that take up long hours and are low reward. And women are shouldering the lion’s share of household work and caregiving even if they also hold down full-time paid jobs.

In every region of the world, women do less paid work than men, with an especially pronounced disparity in South Asia:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 12.03.46 PM

(Image is a screen grab from the 2016 Gates Annual Letter)

In India, the inequity is especially acute. Between 2005 and 2011, India’s economy grew 7% on average, but the number of women in its labor force fell from 31 to 24%. Women in India are becoming more educated and the birth rate is actually falling among these women, but still, India is the 11th worst country in the world when it comes to women in the workforce.

Of course, the social cost of this is enormous.

Women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid work, like housework and caregiving, that take up long hours and are low reward. Click To Tweet

“Working, and the control of assets it allows, lowers rates of domestic violence and increases women’s decision-making in the household. And an economy where all the most able citizens can enter the labor force is more efficient and grows faster,” Rohini Pande, professor of public policy at Harvard University, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. Pervasive gender norms, and the idea that a woman’s work is at home, continues to keep women oppressed in a variety of ways. According to the United Nations Development Program, India ranks 130 out of 155 countries in the Gender Inequality Index, behind neighbors Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Ariel commercial reveals a truth sometimes lost in the debate about workforce equality: If women are empowered to work but also expected to do all the housework and caregiving, we’re not really moving women’s rights forward. We’re just adding the pressure of full-time paid work on top of the burden of unpaid work. To achieve real equity, the solution isn’t simply to bring more women into the workplace; it’s also to get more men to share in housework.

Among developing countries, the unequal burden of this work hampers the livelihoods of girls and women for generations to come. In her annual letter published this week, Melinda Gates writes that globally, women average 4.5 hours daily doing unpaid work. Men spend less than half that. “But the fact is that the burden of unpaid work falls heaviest on women in poor countries, where the hours are longer and the gap between women and men is wider. In India, to take one example, women spend about 6 hours, and men spend less than 1 hour,” she writes. At the end of her letter, Gates emphasizes the importance of sharing unpaid work among the sexes.

One tear-jerking commercial and one impassioned letter does not a revolution make. But it can change a few minds.

If these messages were pervasive when I was a little girl, maybe it would be me demanding equality in my home, rather than leaving it up to chance to find a partner who believed in sharing the load. Or better yet, maybe I would never need to demand such equality in the first place.