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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Would-Be Investment Banker Trying to Make Us See the Value of Household Work

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Diksha Arora grew up in New Delhi, India. Both in her homeland and in her later travels around the world, she chafed at seeing that what is considered appropriate behavior can vary wildly for men and women.

After high school, the expectation was that Arora would become an investment banker, so she majored in economics at India’s Lady Shri Ram College. There, she was exposed to feminist professors who encouraged her to research gender issues in developing nations.

When she graduated, she did get a job at an investment bank, where she toiled for more than a year after she graduated. “I hated each day of work but kept on going,” Arora says. Her motivation was to save up enough money to be able to go to England to get a Master’s degree in development economics at the University of Nottingham.

At Nottingham, she says, “I encountered a famous economist who helped me develop the plan for my research on gender and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.” That economist, Trudy Owens, suggested relevant literature and introduced her to other professors whose comments helped focus Arora’s ideas.

"From a human rights perspective, it is simply unfair that one person in the household works so much more than other. And from an efficiency point of view, overworked women tend to be less productive because of the physical and mental stress they face in daily lives."

In 2011, Arora started a Ph.D. program at the University of Utah, and in 2012, she went to Africa for the first time—to Mozambique to conduct fieldwork. She didn’t know Portuguese and no one spoke English, even in the capital city, so she learned the language while traveling across the country. Within two months, she’d developed relationships with government officials, stayed in various villages on her own, and decided on the region where she wanted to work.

Arora came back to Mozambique the following year, living in four rural villages for four months, collecting data from 206 households, including 10 life stories. By then she could speak Portuguese but most of the people she was now interacting with spoke Makua, a local language. With the help of a translator, she managed to carry out her work and form friendships with locals, joining in on their celebrations and helping out on their farms. “To be accepted into the community was my greatest achievement,” she says.

“These women are very strong and have a deep desire to change their situation,” Arora says. “However, they are bound by the norms which they are scared to break. Through my study and work, I wish to help at least one woman attain a level in which she can feel free to be and do whatever she wants to.”

That work, in part, is an ongoing analysis of the male-female division of labor in Mozambique’s peasant households. She calculates the amount of time people spend on daily activities, with results that consistently prove that men have a lot more leisure time than women do, and that women spend a lot more time working than men do. She also examines how overwork deteriorates women’s health.

“Women across Africa are time-poorer than men,” Arora says. “From a human rights perspective, it is simply unfair that one person in the household works so much more than other. And from an efficiency point of view, overworked women tend to be less productive because of the physical and mental stress they face in daily lives. This inequality is inefficient for the whole household.”

“Because economics turns a blind eye to unpaid work,” Arora says, “most of women’s work remains invisible. As a result, many policies tend to fail or have undesired consequences because they ignore women’s role.”

Arora’s research differs some from many of her economist peers because she believes in taking a qualitative, participatory approach, including conducting focus groups and open-ended interviews, and developing relationships with the people she studies by living with them and integrating herself into their world. By deeply understanding local norms, she claims, she can develop more realistic, acceptable solutions.

“Qualitative research is frowned upon in mainstream economics because it is considered biased,” she explains. “In my opinion, it is the key to understanding social relations in a community. It is difficult to quantify certain variables and relations.” (Arora used her data, for example, to develop an economic model of gender relations and agricultural production.)

A few organizations, at least, see the merit in her approach: She’s already received seven grants, scholarships, and fellowships, including from the Association for Social Economics.

When she’s not working, she loves to go hiking and mountain biking. And she’s passionate about seeing as many of this world’s nooks as she can: Each year, she takes a few weeks off to visit new-to-her countries, to spend time in tiny communities so that she can more intimately learn about different ways of life.

If her travels and work have taught Arora one thing, it’s this: “Every woman has the strength to bring about a change.”

“In this lifetime,” she says, “I want that unpaid work like household work and care work is counted in economics. It should have the same value in mainstream policy as paid work.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).