Working Women Are Less Favored by Matrimonial Suitors, Shows Research
In Indian Matchmaking, Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia, whom we lovingly know as Sima Aunty, articulated every cultural anxiety of Indian households. In addition to casteism, colorism, and classism, her interrogations of women’s “marriageability” brought forth ideas of gender roles and traditions. The most contentious point was about if the woman had any plans to work post-marriage. The hesitance aligned with gender norms dictating the rigid notion: women with jobs were women without the traits needed to be a wife.
This bias that Indian women face in the marriage market, called the “marriage market penalty,” lives in anecdotes and through “subtle” interactions. A recent study quantified the extent of this bias, noting how jobs and aspirations become ways to discriminate against Indian women.
Titled “Indian Matchmaking: Are Working Women Penalized in the Marriage Market in India?,” the paper looks at Shaadi.com profiles of women, how male suitors respond to questions relating to work and income, and if their interest wavers. “The unfortunate reality is that there is a sizeable penalty in the marriage market for women who express an interest in pursuing a career after work,” wrote Diva Dhar, author of the study and a researcher at the University of Oxford. As part of the experiment, Dhar conducted marital profiles of women on Shaadi.com, the platform shrouded in infamy for perpetuating caste and class biases, in addition to reinforcing gender stereotypes. The profiles were modeled after women in real life, and varied across different caste groups.
Roughly, there were five categories of women: women who have never worked and showed no interest in working after marriage; women working with a low income (somewhere between Rs. 2,00,000 and 4,00,000 per annum) and wished to continue working post marriage; women working with a low income and who wished to not continue working post marriage; women working with a high income (Rs. 7,00,000-1,000,000 per annum) and wished to continue work post marriage; women working with a high income and wished to give up work post marriage. The idea was to glean male respondents’ interest based on both job inclination and the income women earn in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular women on these matrimonial sites were those who didn’t work and expressed no interest to work; as many as 70% of men responded to their profiles. “There is a sharp drop in response for women who want to continue working after marriage … women who have never worked receive 15-22% more interest in the marriage market as compared to women who want to keep working.” Interestingly, the overall penalty was reinforced in more privileged caste circles, such as Brahmins and Agarwals.
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The marriage market penalty in India, and the world over, has deeply misogynistic roots. The anxiety goes that a working woman will be too “distracted” from domestic work, child care, and the traditional duties that marriage bestows upon the woman. It is the same vein of discrimination that prompts women to leave work or turn down better opportunities for “family reasons.” In a 2018 study, researchers looked at women across Delhi, Mumbai, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, and found more than half of Indian adults of the opinion that married women whose husbands earn well should not work outside the home.
A 2017 study added to definitive research about this stereotype, showing that 40% of men surveyed hold the belief that working women don’t have good relations with their children in comparison to stay-at-home mothers. The argument here not only normalizes gender roles, but again harkens back to ideas of motherhood and how it comes naturally to women. That is not true.
Quantifying the marriage market penalty is important for two reasons. One, it gives critical context to the link between marriage and female wages. Scholars have studied the “male marital wage premium,” the phenomenon that explains why married men earn more than single men. But the impact of marriage on female wages is relatively underexplored, but necessary to making sense of India’s waning female labor force (India currently ranks low on gender parity in labor force participation), what drives their interests, and why they slip through the cracks. One reason, then, why women may be discouraged and/or conditioned to not take employment opportunities is to see better outcomes in the marriage market.
Pandering to the likes of Sima Auntys is a social process too. Researchers of the 2017 paper note “that social norms around women’s role as domestic caregivers often mean that women are curtailed from seeking work, and that these views may, in turn, be internalized, suppressing their labor force participation.”
Moreover, the present data also helps to understand why marital customs like dowry and even arranged marriages persist despite cultural awareness and the rise of “progressive” ideas. Many Indian families make liberal use of a dichotomy by calling themselves modern and “up with the times,” while insisting on finding a tall, rich, fair, educated heterosexual partner from a “good” family. When shows and the dominant narrative normalize these considerations, the bias that women may face for exercising their agency to work is normalized too.
Simi Aunty, the arbiter of all prejudices, knew best.