Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

A woman’s place

Published: Apr 07, 2015

 Ariane Utomo

More than a century after the death of Raden Ajeng Kartini—the national heroine for women’s rights —the old adage that a woman’s place is in the home appears to be no longer valid. At least, this seems to be true for the majority of the educated youth in urban Indonesia.

In the past decades, development and social change in Indonesia have facilitated profound changes in women’s work participation and, accordingly, in societal attitudes to gender roles in marriage. If we go by the national statistics of 2010, about 70 per cent of tertiary-educated urban women aged 25–29 nominated work as their primary activity. Other socio-demographic indicators reinforce the story of women’s changing position in society and in the family. Fertility rates are declining, age at first marriage is increasing, and the gender gap in school participation has disappeared.

Data from the 2010 Population Census indicate that in the 25–29 age group, there were 76 tertiary-educated men for every 100 tertiary-educated women. This is in stark contrast to the experience of the previous generation. In the same census year, the sex ratio of the tertiary-educated population aged 50–54 was 176 men for every 100 women. While the outlook on achieving gender parity in education is thus rather rosy, does this imply that we can expect to see similarly egalitarian employment outcomes among the current cohort of young and educated urban Indonesians? It turns out that, for both educated young men and women, male breadwinner ideals continue to dominate attitudes towards gender roles in marriage.

Gendered labour market expectations

Global evidence suggests that despite equalising male–female educational attainment, women continue to earn less than men, to be more likely to work in occupations characterised by lower wages and to exhibit lower levels of labour force attachment. Studies further show that young men and women of similar educational attainment and qualification have substantially different employment intentions and career expectations even before they enter the labour market. This trend is consistent with the findings of my fieldwork that included a survey of 1761 later-year students enrolled in seven universities in Jakarta and five universities in Makassar back in 2004. This was the year when the first female leader of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was an incumbent during the country’s first direct presidential election.  

To begin with, occupational goals of the students surveyed reflected gender segregation by fields of study, which is typically found across universities in Indonesia. While commerce is typically gender-neutral in its student sex ratio, engineering is reputedly male-dominated and faculties like education, psychology and literature are likely to be female-dominated. Within faculties, gender segregation was also evident across study majors. For example, in the faculty of engineering at one of the universities surveyed, mechanical engineering was male-denominated, chemical engineering had notably more women and architecture seemed to be equally popular for male and female students. 

Yet, even among young men and women studying in similar programs, gender differences in labour market expectations were evident. On average, the female students anticipated lower wages, expected to experience more frequent and longer career interruption and a shorter overall time in the labour force than their male counterparts studying in the same faculty. Female students were also more likely to highly value compensating, or non-financial job attributes than male students, including having a pleasant and family-friendly work environment.  

These gender dimensions of university education are important to consider when we try to interpret national statistics showing gender parity in education. When young men and women graduate from university, not only are they equipped with different sets of skills, they also bring with them different ideas, expectations and ambitions regarding their future career. These gendered skills and labour market expectations foretell consequent patterns in occupational segregation, the gender wage gap and women’s underrepresentation at senior employment levels. 

Dual-earner ideals

Understanding what drives gendered labour market expectations and, ultimately, labour market outcomes requires an understanding of young people’s perceptions towards gender roles in the family. Among the young urban middle class in Indonesia, to graduate from university, get a job, get married and have children is a steadfast and universal idealised path to adulthood. In this context of transition to adulthood, I have examined to what extent the traditional model of gender roles in marriage continues to foreshadow these young people’s labour market expectations. 

Apart from questions dealing with their labour market expectations, the survey asked students to nominate their preferred model of household, and to nominate whether they agree or disagree, on a scale of one to five, with a series of statements on attitudes to gender roles. The majority of students reported that their ideal household type would be a dual-earner family with the wife working as a secondary earner. The second most popular household type is a dual-earner model with an egalitarian division of labour between the husband and the wife. A clear trend is that the single male breadwinner model is no longer the norm, receiving less than 10 per cent of the students’ votes. 

The preference for dual-earner households is in line with these students’ attitudes to gender roles. Both men and women showed general support for women’s involvement in paid employment. Yet, in line with the popularity of the wives as secondary earners model, the men showed less flexible attitudes towards egalitarian sharing of domestic responsibilities and male leadership in the family. The women were found to be more egalitarian than the men in every measure of attitudes to gender roles. 

Young tertiary-educated men and women at the workplace in a Jakarta office - A.J. Lestari

However, attitudes to gender roles did actually vary among women themselves, and their answers foretell their future work preference. As expected, women with less traditional attitudes to gender roles were more likely to nominate that they expect to work in the 20 years after graduation than women with more traditional attitudes. Among men, there appeared to be no evident relationship between their future work intentions and their attitudes to gender roles. Regardless of whether they were less or more traditional in their reported attitudes, most men reported that they expect to still be working 20 years after graduation. 

These findings show that expectations for the male provider and female reproductive roles are still common among educated young men and women, despite the shifts towards a dual-earner household model. In-depth interviews with a smaller sample of students further revealed what it means for wives to be secondary earners. It means that women can contribute actively to household income without leaving their kodrat wanita (woman’s nature) or God-ordained role as the primary carer in the family. 

A woman’s kodrat 

Data from the 2010 National Socioeconomic Survey suggest that in the general population, the male breadwinner model remains dominant. About 57 per cent of married couples reported that the husband had work and the wife had housekeeping as their primary activity. Only 33 per cent of couples reported that both husbands and wives had work as their primary activity. These statistics are reversed for tertiary-educated couples: 62 per cent nominated work as the primary activity of both the husband and the wife. Dual-earner ideals displayed by the sample of university students in 2004 thus foreshadowed current trends among tertiary-educated married couples. However, these figures still conceal complex dilemmas and often contradictory beliefs on gender roles in marriage.

Overall, old themes and new ideas characterised young people’s attitudes and expectations of their roles in the family. Like their male counterparts, most young women would like to engage in the formal labour market following graduation. The difference is that women expect and are expected to modify their participation in the labour market upon marriage, based on what is often still considered to be their inherent reproductive role, their kodrat. 

Farhan, a single, male 26-year-old mechanical engineering student in Jakarta, said that it is only natural to expect that the husband is the breadwinner. ‘The wife can work, but just as a side activity and as long as she does not forget her responsibilities to me [husband] and the child.’ He went on to say ‘It’s alright to say emancipation, but with all the limitations that women have?’ By this he referred to the ‘natural limitations’ of womanhood, ‘like getting her period every month’, implying that this makes women the weaker sex—‘Why [do you think] we have the term ladies first?’—and thereby that their primary responsibilities ‘naturally’ gravitate towards husbands and children. 

Not only men hold this belief. Female students expressed similar views about a woman’s preordained role in the family. As 22-year-old Erin, a science student in Makassar, stated ‘I’d like both of us to work, but a woman must know her kodrat! We must be devoted to our husband, devoted to our children.’ Especially for mothers, she argued that ‘whatever happens we still have a greater obligation than our husbands to our child’. So, although she wants both herself and her husband to work, she imagines a clear role division – ‘I work until late afternoon, and he works until night.’

This is, of course, a story that we hear all too often, not only in Indonesia; increased parity in educational achievement does not necessarily reduce traditional gender role expectations. But these expectations are not uncontested. In contemporary urban Indonesia, conflicting values and competing rhetoric surrounding working women, particularly working mothers, have surfaced in the post-reformasi years. 

Conflicting views

Following reformasi, there has been a notable rise in both the government’s and civil society’s thrust towards gender-equity. Some momentous achievements on this front include the passing of the bill against domestic violence and the rise of social movements that strive to promote the father’s involvement in child rearing as well as mutual respect in marriage and pre-marital relationships, such as Laki-Laki Peduli (Men that Care) and Ayah/Suami Siaga (Fathers/Husbands Alert). 

At the same time, reformasi has provided platforms for conservative forces to gain momentum. Examples include staunch opposition to the proposed revisions to the Compilation of Islamic Laws, the increasing public display of support for polygamy, the organised opposition to the Gender Equity Bill and the launch of the Obedient Wives Club – an Islamic-based organisation aiming to promote harmonious families through encouraging married women to be submissive. While these organised actions could well represent only a small proportion of the general population, they illustrate even more hostile conflicts today not only between men and women, but also between groups of women themselves. 

A recently circulating online meme that incited heated debates in social media depicts a picture of two little children sheltering from the rain. The text says, ‘Mama, would you leave your bag full of jewellery and cash with the maid?’ The mother answers ‘Of course not, child. I don’t trust her.’  The child poses another question, ‘But Ma, then why would you leave me with her?’ As my interviews show, such views of work–family dilemmas faced by women characterised educated young people’s expectations even before they enter the labour market. 

Rini, a 22-year-old, female architecture student in Makassar, explained in the interview that she and her boyfriend had filled out the questionnaire together. ‘He filled his, I filled mine, and then we matched our answers.’ She was struck by one of his answers which said she should not work. When she asked him why, he responded, ‘Who will look after the kids?’ Rini’s suggestion that they’ll have maids was brushed aside. ‘He said “you can’t rely on the maids, what is the point then of you becoming a mother?” He still thinks like that’ said Rini sighing, ‘but then he agreed I should work to help out the family. But he said there is a time when I must quit.’ Asked whether she agreed with that, she concluded ‘we’ll see about that. If the work is like… you know, and he can meet all our needs, why not?’

Despite a strong preference towards a dual-earner household, as long as issues of work–family balance continue to affect women more than men and remain marginal in policy debates, gendered labour market expectations and outcomes are here to stay. However well-educated they are, young Indonesian women are bound to continue negotiating their career aspirations within the ascribed boundaries of the so-called kodrat wanita. 

Ariane Utomo (Ariane.utomo@anu.edu.au) is a Research Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy of the Australian National University. 

Inside Indonesia 120: Apr-Jun 2015{jcomments on}

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