All work and no pay

To Nicholas Kristoff, “One of the puzzles of the developing world is that women frequently do some of the hardest physical labor.”

Photo by Gretchen Draper

This is not such a puzzle in light of the general principle that the harder people work (as a group), the less money they make — and the less “productive” they are in economic terms (meaning what they produce sells for less).

I like these pictures to illustrate the principle with farmers:

Women’s backbreaking work shows the extension of the principle to include work for no pay — the hardest work of all.

12 thoughts on “All work and no pay

  1. I think Kristof’s question is why women do the hardest physical labor in many developing countries but not in developed ones. You’re not using the standard economic concept of labor productivity which is “unit of output / hour.” On a micro level, changes in productivity are sometimes positively and sometimes negatively associated with changes in wages. I don’t think your “general principle” is true, let alone that it explains the puzzle.


  2. Note I wrote, “as a group.” Within groups, harder working people sometimes do make more money.

    But common – who’s producing more “output per hour,” the guy with the ox or the guy with the tractor? I’m no farm expert, but it looks to me like ox guy is working harder but producing less. (Plus you have to consider the working conditions: air conditioning in the padded seat versus malaria in the muck).

    I’m sticking with the “general principle,” though if you wanted to call it a “general pattern” I wouldn’t mind. I’d stop short of “iron law” or “axiom.”


  3. The principle/pattern you refer to is an attempt to generalize over multiple situations and I think it is helpful to take a more micro look to see which situations the generalization will hold and which it won’t.

    e.g. Women work harder in school than men, result: they are getting more education which is a contributing factor to the shrinking of the wage gap.

    e.g. Inspirational mayor convinces people to work harder on the job. Perhaps unrealistic, but if it were to happen the result: town is more productive and overall earns more money (but perhaps is less happy because they sacrificed family time)

    I think you described the differences between the pictures accurately. Ox plow: harder working, less productive, lower standard of living. Tractor: easier working, more productive, higher standard of living.

    The reason those differences exist is that the farmer in tractor has: 1. more physical/financial capital to use in production, 2. a larger market to sell to which allows him to specialize in what he does best


  4. Hello!

    The picture of women carrying water was taken in the Rift Valley of Kenya in February 2008 by me. It was a familiar scene during our trip through Kenya.

    What I wrote about in my blog “Room to Write” had more to do with the overall disregard of the developed world for all peoples who must work with their hands and bodies, no matter where we find them.

    I thought the Copenhagen conference would have been better served if these women were invited to speak. As I said, they were probably too busy, carrying water.

    In the spirit of open communication, could you identify the source of photographs and information you use in your posts? I think it would add to the discussion.

    Thank you!


  5. Very sorry, Gretchen! I’ve added a photo credit and link, but also would remove it if you prefer. I thought I made it a habit to always provide a link to the images I grab. Your post didn’t say you took the picture, but if I had looked at the whole blog I would have known. Thanks for your comment, too.


  6. Hi, Philip,

    Thank you for adding my name. It’s one of those photos I revisit often. It says so much in the bent of those women’s bodies, the colors of the landscape, and that red skirt.

    I’ve been encouraged by the changes women make in their lives through micro-loans. Do you ever read Ode Magazine?

    I’ll look forward to exploring your site.


  7. It appears as if people who work less get more because of all the financially connected people in the last several decades who got rich off the expansion of the money supply. Less then 30% of the money was created by legitimate production, most our economy was funny money finance.

    Taking the idea that more work = less, as a principle, is a horrible concept. Everyone who is successful knows hard work pays off. That sounds the kind of propaganda they try to fill our downtroddens and middle class heads with in the mainstream media. It’s to brainwash people into thinking that to get their fair share they have to fight to take from people who are better off, rather then spend their energy productively creating things or bettering themselves. For many American’s decades even entire lives are wasted stuck on this type of thinking.

    The quote says ‘woman do some of the hardest work’. And? It’s not disputing that men do most of the hardest work including all of the most dangerous and difficult work. I don’t see any puzzle about the fact that without machines woman actually had to do work. All I can guess is that people think working women is a recent phenomonon only made possible due to the womans liberation movement.


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