‘Doing it all’: Indonesian women’s double burden | Indonesia News

‘Doing it all’: Indonesian women’s double burden | Indonesia News

Jakarta, Indonesia – Psychologist Jackie Viemilawati wakes up at 5:30am every day to get her eight-year-old son, Noah, ready for school. She makes sure he showers and eats his breakfast, prepared by the family’s domestic worker, and gets his bag ready before he leaves with his grandmother at 6:15am.

Then Viemilawati steels herself for her commute to the office.

“It takes me four hours to get to work and back,” Viemilawati, 41, said when Al Jazeera met her at her office in south Jakarta. “I catch the commuter train and then a minibus.”

Fortunately, the non-profit where she works offers flexible hours, introduced after the staff – mostly mothers themselves – realised how tough it was to balance the demands on their lives.

Despite having a Masters degree from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Viemilawati earns only 10 percent of what her husband makes as a local employee at a UN agency.

“My work is basically social work with a small wage as a bonus,” she laughs. “If I was fired tomorrow, or got divorced, I wouldn’t have a rupiah to my name. No money, no social security. My salary doesn’t cover my family’s needs.”

While a recent survey on women’s pay found the pay gap with men at senior levels was small, the reality is most Indonesian women not only earn less than their husbands and male colleagues, but they’re also expected to look after the house, their children, and often even their elderly parents.

Indonesians call it dapur, sumur, kasur – “the kitchen, the well, and the bed” – women’s traditional place in the archipelago’s society.

Evi Mariani takes her son to work with her in Jakarta about once a month [Kate Walton/Al Jazeera]


A 2017 report from the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Economic Governance found that in employment, Indonesian women’s average hourly wage was between 70 and 80 percent of men’s. 

Research on female garment workers by the International Labor Organisation in 2014 had similar findings, showing women regularly ended up with wages between 10 and 20 percent less than men.

For professionals, a survey on gender pay by recruitment firm Korn Ferry found Indonesia’s rapidly expanding economy appeared favourable to women, with an overall gap of 5 percent (compared with an average 16 percent globally and 15 percent in Asia). Women at the same level actually earned 1.2 percent more than their male colleagues, it said.

But as Korn Ferry admitted, numbers alone do not paint a complete picture.

Women are also battling a lack of transparency around salaries. In Indonesia, wages are neither advertised nor standardised; many employers ignore regional minimum wages, while others base offers on salary history.

For women, who tend to take time off work to look after young children, that can mean a lower salary when they return because employers look to the new recruit’s last-drawn paycheque – even though it might have been years before.

“The equal-pay-for-equal-work measures may be pretty accurate, but in themselves, they are not a good indicator to capture the extent of gender inequalities in the labour market,” explained Ariane Utomo, a lecturer in demography at the University of Melbourne.

“Comparing the wages of male and female managers is misleading, because a big chunk of the women don’t make it that far up the career ladder, or have dropped out of the workforce completely before reaching the age of 40.”

As Utomo points out, women face a “double burden” – how to work a full-time job while also looking after their household, husband, and children.

Indonesia’s labour force participation rate for women is only 51 percent, compared with 80 percent for men, according to the National Socio-Economic Survey. In Vietnam, 73 percent of women work outside the home.

Few Indonesian companies offer facilities such as daycare centres or breast-feeding rooms that would help women stay at work. And flexible work hours remain rare.

The government is trying to encourage businesses to develop such facilities, but with few incentives, implementation has been slow even in government offices themselves.

Domestic help

Families who can afford it often hire domestic staff to assist, saying they would not be able to cope with the workload otherwise. 

Viemilawati has a domestic worker who helps around the house. “We made the conscious decision not to have a nanny, though,” she added. “We want to look after our son ourselves, and are fortunate that my mum also lives with us.”

Even so, she almost always goes straight home after work.

It’s different for her husband, who usually heads to the gym or meets friends before returning home, she says. “But he does make it home before our son goes to bed at least three times a week.”

Evi Mariani, managing editor at The Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s largest English-language media outlet, realised when she had a baby that she could not continue working without a live-in nanny.

“My working hours are not nine-to-five, and there is little daycare available,” she said.

Mariani and her husband decided to hire Yuni, an expert in caring for toddlers, five years ago when their son was born. They kept her on as he got older. Yuni now cooks, cleans, and does laundry as well. Mariani estimates her family spends about one-quarter of their income on domestic help.

“But I also have this guilt [over employing a nanny],” Mariani, 42, told Al Jazeera. “I know she left her children behind in her village. I feel very guilty about this.”

Jackie Viemelawati leaves her office in the rain for her two-hour journey by train and bus back home [Kate Walton/Al Jazeera] 

No options

But working from home in the morning, and in the office from 2pm until at least 7pm, means she has no other option. “If I didn’t have a child, this wouldn’t be a problem. We have to have a support system in place as a result.”

For women such as Yuni, not working is simply not an option. Her family relies on her income. Yuni’s husband works as a labourer and frequently moves around, while her niece and other family members look after Yuni’s two children back in Central Java.

“She’s very stoic about it,” Mariani said, glancing across at Yuni who is in her early 30s while she cooks. “She’s been working as a domestic helper for 16 years.”

Around 80 percent of women in Indonesia’s poorest households work – in other people’s homes, as farmers, fisherwomen, tailors, day labourers or even running a kiosk or food stand in front of their house. But even when working, their income is seen as “additional” to their husband’s, even if they are the ones who are actually supporting the household.

When asked about her family, Yuni just smiles and shrugs lightly.

“It’s just the way things are,” she said, scooping rice porridge into a bowl and mixing it with green vegetables. She excuses herself and goes to give Mariani’s son his lunch, while his mother gets ready to leave for work.

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