Skip to content

Domestic Workers in Middle Class Families in South Asia and United States

Marwa Nur Muhammad
Gender and Technology
Professor Anne Dalke and Laura Blankenship
March 6th 2009

Domestic workers around the world work in other people’s households doing chores including cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, taking care of young children and more. Often, they live with the family they work for – live-in domestics – or they come in at a certain time to carry out their responsibilities like any other part-time job worker. Most domestic workers in the world are female. Gender identities among domestic workers often seem to affect the way they use technology, and it varies among the different countries. In this paper, I hope to look at middle class families employing domestic helpers in South Asian countries and in the United States. In South Asia, it appears that work that has to be done inside the four walls are mostly taken up by females, while ones that are done outside the home, like driving personal cars, is taken up by males. It appears that the gender of the worker is associated with a certain kind of work and certain technological knowledge in South Asia. In the United States, there are far fewer male domestic helpers and homes have more technical equipment. The gender of the workers seem to be less associated with their ability or inability to work with technology.

In South Asia, gender roles seem to automatically dictate what kind of technology to use. Live-in domestics are mostly women, and their daily household chores include cooking, washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the house, dusting furniture and scrubbing the floor. Kitchens nowadays are as industrialized as factories and coal mines, with washing machines and microwave ovens to ease every day tasks.[1] While this might be true in developed nations, most middle class families in South Asia cannot afford the machines in kitchens, and even if they do, a lot of the times domestic helpers are discouraged from using them by their employers.

On the other hand, those who own cars employ drivers and they are always males. It is important in South Asia to employ drivers so that someone can be with the car at all times for security purposes. Car in itself is a technology, and being able to use one requires specialized skills and knowledge. The middle class employers employ these male helpers to use a certain kind of technology, and at the same time, they discourage their workers at home from using most kinds of technology within the household. Why is it that the use of technology is acceptable for the drivers but there is hesitation in allowing the helpers inside the household to use certain technologies?

The employers might not be comfortable in letting their generally female employees to use technology at home because they are afraid that their equipment might get ruined in inexperienced hands. But how difficult is it to teach how to use a microwave, or even a washing machine? It is far easier to use than a car. If they are ready to trust their drivers with their cars (and lives), why is there hesitation in allowing helpers to use simple technology at home? Is it their perception of the relation between gender and technology, where they think men can handle it while females cannot? What is striking to me is that, the employers in South Asia seem to be extremely against the use of any technology for these domestic helpers, even if it is not related to the kitchen and is far simpler. “The aristocracy creeps into [the domestic helpers] also. See, they want a two-in-one [radio/cassette player], so they want the power to be connected to their room.”[2] It seems that some of the employers relate technology not just to their gender but to their class as well; people belonging to the so-called lower class should not use or even dream of using anything that is a product of technological advancement. The behavior seems contradictory, since drivers also belong to the same class and yet their use of technology is not challenged the same way.

In the United States, the middle class employers seem to relate gender and technology among domestic workers slightly differently. Middle class families do not generally employ drivers, and a very high percentage of domestic helpers are female. In 1999, for example, 98.5 percent of domestic workers in America were women.[3] Employers want their employees to use available household technology, but are often frustrated at the lack of technical knowledge of the employees. “[They are] telephone maniacs because they have never had telephones. And they had no knowledge of electrical appliances.”[4] Employers tend to divide the work between machines and the helpers [5], and it is the helpers who run those machines. “[My sister] must wash clothes twice a week and each time washes enough to clothe a family of ten and not five. You can say the washing machine will do the washing but it is my sister who must put up, take down, and iron these clothes.”[5] Why is it that employers are not resistant to their female helpers using technology in America the way employers in South Asia are? It may be that gender is not connected to technical abilities as strongly. Domestic workers in America are generally more educated than those in South Asia, and it might be the education level that makes employers more comfortable to allow their employees to use technology and are less hesitant to teach them how to use certain devices or equipment. Thus, gender identity does not affect their technological practices as much.

In general, gender identities seem to affect technological practices more in countries in South Asia than in the United States. However, most of the information presented in this paper is from the perspective of the employers. How do the employees themselves feel about technology? Are domestic helpers in South Asia themselves willing to use technology, or would they also rather just stay away from it? I wonder if employers would keep their helpers working inside the household away from technology in exactly the same way had they been male instead of female. In the U.S, are employers willing to accept their female helpers use of technology because they have no other option – that is, would the situation have been the same as it is now if there were more male domestic workers, or would the male helpers be expected to do more of the work with technology than the female workers? It would have been interesting if the male to female ratio of domestic workers were similar in the U.S and South Asia.

Work Cited:
1.“More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave”, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, 1941, Pg 4
2.“Home and Hegemony: Domestic Service and Identity Politics in South and Southeast Asia”, Mutual Exclusions: Domestic Workers and Employers on Labor, Class, and Character in South India, Sara Dickey, 2000, Pg 47.
3.“Trafficking and Exploitation of Migrant Domestic Workers by Diplomats and Staff of International Organizations in the United States”, American Civil Liberties Union, 2007.
4.“Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy”, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, 2003, Pg 109
5.”Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920 – 1945″, Phyllis Palmer, 1989, Pgs 65-87

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009


    In this paper, as in your last, you compare the relation of gender and technology between the U.S. and the southern hemisphere.

    Your first comparative exercise was, I thought, a very fruitful one: it enabled you to set up a very striking contrast between two subgroups that dichotomize gender roles, with one of them eschewing modern technology entirely, and so avoiding @ least that dimension of increasing gender difference. What you were able to do there, in other words, was control for @ least some of the variables in the equation you were trying to “prove.”

    Here, because your target groups are so much less limited—“South Asia” and the “U.S., ” rather than particular sub-groups in each section of the world—you have so many more variables, so many more questions, and so many fewer claims that you are able to make. You give a very general overview—South Asian employers restrict their female servants more from “using the products of technological advancement” than do employers in the U.S. You think class may be as limiting as gender is. And you speculate that “gender is not connected as strongly to technical abilities” in the U.S.

    I’m not so sure about that. Missing from your account is not only what you acknowledge–“the perspective of the employees themselves”—but a larger sense of the interrelation between gender and technology, in other class positions. When Afsaneh Najamabi came to speak to my Gender and Science class two years ago, she made it clear that the priorities of developing/third world/southern countries are very science-centered; there is a strong push to be educated (in order to improve one’s social status); it is thought that science, especially, “will make it possible for us to catch up.” Accordingly, she explained, her sense of “out-of-placeness” as a woman did not occur in segregated pre-university-level Iranian schools, but in a U.S. graduate program; until she arrived @ Harvard, she said, “I rarely thought of myself as a woman.” In the terms we have been using here, she wasn’t “engendered” until she arrived in this country.

Comments are closed.