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Can modern energy cooking shift gender relationships in the home?

31st March 2023

By Dr Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd., Loughborough University).

In this blog we present the idea, with some indirect evidence, that modern energy cooking not only creates better conditions for the cook, most of whom are women, but potentially contributes to a shift in gender relationships within the household, contributing to gender equality and equity.

At the top of the infographic we represent the usual discussion of benefits resulting from cleaner cooking.  Cleaner cooking is frequently credited with enhancing health and freeing up time.   Affordability and climate emissions are other well-known benefits, the second line tries to capture that in some contexts, improved cookstoves using sustainable biomass might actually be more affordable or give less climate emissions than the fossil fuel LPG. 

The key message of the infographic is in the lower half.  Below the pictures we attempt to capture a number of gender equity or equality factors that could result from increased use of eCooking. 

Domestic cooking is seen by many as a task that should be left to women. In addition to societal and patriarchal barriers, men may be deterred from cooking when it involves lighting a traditional stove that takes skill and practice. The smoky kitchen conditions from a three stone fire are unpleasant, and households often isolate the cooking process to an ‘outhouse’ or separate room to contain the smoke.  These conditions can reinforce inequity for women, who are relegated to a domain perceived as ‘dirty’ and effectively excluded from the rest of the household. As modern energy is utilised, the kitchen becomes more pleasant, and can be moved physically closer to the rest of the household without polluting the lungs of additional family members. 

The infographic attempts to capture this: A progression to modern energy cooking could not only improve the living conditions of women, children and men, but it could prompt a greater integration of the household, and a greater equity across the genders.   The improved proximity to the rest of the family/household can reduce the isolation of the cook, conversations can be held in the kitchen, the children can show interest without fear of being burnt, and men may increasingly contribute. 

Is this a hopeful hypothesis or is it supported by (indirect) evidence?

Challenging traditional patriarchal norms?  Most studies on gender and modern cooking fuels, such as LPG, focus on the barriers to technology-adoption that gender inequity create.  Yvas et al (2021), for instance, document how patriarchal norms are pushing households back into using solid fuels, away from LPG, indeed hindering refills.  However, the findings are complex and in another cohort from the study, LPG is encouraged but again is fed by patriarchal norms to prevent women leaving the house to find solid fuels and to encourage isolation.  Gould & Urpelainen (2021) also note that women-led households and households where joint decision making is the norm, have a greater use of LPG. The authors of these papers assume that increased gender equity leads to increased take up of modern cooking technology. However, perhaps we can reframe these findings, with a ‘chicken and egg’ question of causation, and ask whether there may also be a causal influence in the other direction? We suggest that cooking with cleaner technology also influences gender norms, and that these changes may lead to a virtuous cycle of change. Puzzolo et al (2013)  draw on multiple studies to discuss how changing cooking fuels is greatly influenced by the community of neighbours, and once a certain density is reached, adoption penetrates even the resistant households.  Is this effect going to force patriarchal normative households to reconsider their kitchen set up?

In this blog we consider possible mechanisms by which cleaner cooking technologies could lead to greater gender equity:

Joint decision-making: We have noted above that it is joint decision-making (and women led) households that tend to be early adopters of modern energy cooking.  However, does engagement in those technology and cost options lead to a virtuous cycle of better, more discursive decision making?  Can the need to discuss options actually create better communication between partners?  The MECS paper on ‘Consumer Journeys (2022)’  presented data on how joint decision making is becoming more prevalent in our countries of interest.  As a generalisation, most countries are reporting that the percentage of women involved in a purchase of large household assets (which LPG and cooking fall into), has risen by about 30 to 40% over the last 10 years. There are some exceptions, but if, as Yvas et al reports, it is the involvement of women in decision making that leads to greater uptake of LPG, then it seems reasonable to hope that the process of considering a range of options for cooking might lead to more willingness to make joint decisions in the future.

Reduced violence against women?  In the MECS paper on Covid recovery plans, we looked at the national datasets on domestic violence and the presence of modern energy cooking, and found a tentative relationship.  However, as already acknowledged, the challenge of any correlation in these types of datasets is that it can then be difficult to disentangle the direction of causation.  Do national datasets on domestic violence show a decrease with the increasing presence of modern cooking because domestic violence reduction is intrinsically linked to wealth effects or is it the changes in understanding and exposure to global value norms that come with increasing wealth that causes the reduction which happens to coincide with increased use.  Or indeed is it possible that increased modernisation, challenges traditional norms (and reduces burnt food – a common reason for domestic violence cited by men)? We don’t yet know and we would love to find the study that unpacks this, but it feels logical that there is potential for a virtuous cycle.

Digital connections:  In the infographic we speculate whether exposure to the digital side of eCooking might help bridge the gender gap – causing familiarity among the household, and enabling men to see that technology is not a solely male domain.  Of course, the use of mobile phones generally remains gendered (GSMA 2022)  but the gap has been reducing and the absolute number of women with access to a mobile phone and internet is growing, and these in turn are leading to stories of change and improvements in gender relations.  Rotondi et al (2020) present a large body of evidence of how mobile phone usage is a gateway to greater gender equity, higher contraceptive use, and lower maternal and child mortality.  If modern energy cooking brings mobile phone use and data flows into the kitchen, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the use of the Internet of Things creates another virtuous cycle, greater familiarity with technology reinforces every day mobile phone and internet use (e.g. looking up the energy consumption on an app) and therefore strengthen the uptake of phones by women?        

Science capital and STEM: There is a growing body of evidence (in developed economies) regarding Science Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills in school age children, including something called ‘science capital’This video suggests that experiences at home and everyday experiences influence interest in STEM.  How much exposure do children get to science (and STEM) in the home while growing up?  The research focuses on OECD economies, but it’s grounded in their family and upbringing and includes knowing people who work in science, engineering or technology-related roles (in our case perhaps the engineer who helps provide the modern cooking equipment), talking with family and friends about science (how does the induction stove work!?), doing science-based activities out of school (helping in the kitchen, using technology), all of which could lead to developing science-related knowledge and understanding and having a positive attitude to science.  More research is needed, but if modern energy cooking stimulates children’s interest, then perhaps science capital may be built which could lead to girls (and boys) taking more jobs in STEM?

Time release – other activities?  The usual discourse on cleaner cooking notes the release of time for women.  In most cases this is a proportion of the cooking preparation (e.g., gathering the fuel or lighting the stove, and some time saving in the actual cooking).  What modern energy appliances also bring is automation that further releases women from monitoring the appliance and which invites men and children to engage.  Again there is ample evidence from developed economies of the convenience of modern appliances, and the ability of women and men to undertake full-time paid employment and still prepare food for the family. The time release may be income-generating, but it could also encourage political engagement or important leisure activities that lead to greater wellbeing.

Options and Choices – the bottom line – a modern kitchen increases the options and choice for women and challenges the traditions of being ‘tied’ to that kitchen.

At the moment, these thoughts about the ways that cleaner cooking could lead to greater gender equity are hypotheses, with limited data and evidence.  We have indicative data, paths of change found in multiple countries that could be taken as a proxy for what might happen in the longer term in our countries of interest.  Despite improvements, men still don’t do an equal share of the domestic work (UK, USA), and the barriers to change across the world are significant. However, there is hope that the changes in gender relations we have seen thus far, the moves away from traditional patriarchal systems, and the prospect for more involvement of women in STEM work, could be enhanced by the presence of technology in the kitchen

I can imagine how things might change, and I write this blog in the hope that stakeholders move beyond seeing modern energy cooking as just a mitigation of Household Air Pollution and a saving of time, and move on to see that it can contribute to a change from traditional household dynamics to greater gender equity and equality.   We will need to gather data to investigate this hypothesis, and those studies will need to be longitudinal, but let’s start some discussions about this and look out for mixed, qualitative and quantitative data that supports or challenges the hypothesis.  

Featured Image: MECS Infographic

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched