‘Doing it all’: Indonesian women’s double burden

Debate over the gender pay gap seems almost peripheral in a country where tradition forces women to keep house and work.

Indonesia women
Evi Mariani hired a domestic worker to help her cope with work and home when she had a baby [Kate Walton/Al Jazeera]

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,” said Viemilawati, 41, when Al Jazeera met her at her office in south Jakarta. “I catch the commuter train and then a minibus.”

Fortunately, the non-profit organisation where she works offers flexible hours, introduced after the staff – mostly mothers themselves – realised how tough it was to juggle their various duties.

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, a local employee at a UN agency, makes.

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“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 by recruitment firm Korn Ferry on women’s salaries across Asia found the male-female pay gap at senior levels small, the reality is most Indonesian women earn less than men – and they’re also expected to look after the house, children, and even elderly parents.

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

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

Invisible barriers

A 2017 report from the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Economic Governance found that the Indonesian women were only paid 70-80 percent of what men got per hour. 

Research by the International Labor Organization in 2014 on female garment workers also showed that women earned 10-20 percent less than men in Indonesia.

However, it appears Indonesia’s dynamic economy has prospered women. The same Korn Ferry survey found that the pay gap between Indonesian women and men was only five percent (as opposed to a 16 percent globally and 15 percent in Asia). And a few women at the very top actually earned 1.2 percent more than their male colleagues.

But as Korn Ferry admitted, the numbers don’t paint a complete picture.

Women also suffer from a lack of pay transparency. In Indonesia, wages are not advertised or standardised. Many employers ignore regional minimum wages, while others give offers based on past salaries.

Some employers choose to pay returning female staff the same salary as years ago – the same rate they got before they took time off to care for their children.

“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, many women are doubly burdened, doing a full day’s work then coming home to more housework and childcare.

Thus only 51 percent of women in Indonesia work, compared with 80 percent of men, according to the National Socioeconomic Survey. In Vietnam, that rate is 73 percent.

Few Indonesian companies offer facilities that would encourage women to remain at work, such as daycare centres or breast-feeding rooms. And flexible working hours are rare.

The government is trying to encourage businesses to provide such facilities, but with few incentives, implementation has been slow. 

Domestic help

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

Viemilawati has a maid 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.

Like many Jakarta families, both parents work, but Viemilawati has a husband who also wants to spend time with the couple’s son.

“My husband is very concerned about equal parenting,” she said.

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 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] 
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 going to the office from 2pm until at least 7pm doesn’t leave her much choice. “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, stopping work is not an option. Her family relies on her income. Yuni’s husband works as a labourer and moves around the country frequently, 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 run a kiosk or food stand. Although they have jobs, their income is still seen as supplementary, even if they earn more than their husbands do.

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

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

Source: Al Jazeera