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The Question of Women’s Employment

Neetha N

Women’s work, as a theme, has taken a backseat in the discussions on women’s issues in India, though women’s low participation in employment with precarious conditions of work has been an ongoing feature, especially in the last two decades. Although globalization and the associated market-oriented economic models were assumed to address the issue of women’s low participation, there have been no signs of any positive change, and the contemporary period is marked by a crisis in employment for women, with a decline in women’s work participation rate from 28.3% in 1993-94 to 21.7% in 2011-12 (Neetha, 2014). Further, the specific dimensions of women’s employment, be it the nature of employment or sectoral distribution, show high degrees of concentration.

One of the most important policy initiatives in the 1980s and in the later decades has been towards the promotion of women as self-employed workers, originating from the perception that beneficial effects of the market lay in expanding the relationship between women ‘entrepreneurs’ in the informal sector and wider markets. Formation of Self Help Groups among poor women (who are unable to access market individually or own assets) also gained acceptance during this period and it was viewed as an initiative that could empower women and provide them economic and social justice. Flexibility and timings of such activities were assumed to attract more women in their productive age group into production while keeping the institution of the family and the gendered divisions of labour undisturbed.  

Thus, even though self-employment accounts for the largest chunk of women workers, women are not entrepreneurs, but own-account workers or unpaid family helpers. The bulk of the own-account workers are part of the vast expanding base of home-based workers in the manufacturing sector and are dependent on the contractors. Wage rates, whether by the hour or by piece, are very low, requiring long hours of work and onerous labour to make a livelihood.  The share of unpaid family helpers working in family farms or household enterprises is so high that only about 15% of the female population in the country is found to receive wages or incomes for their labour when unpaid labour from the female work participation rate is removed.

Coming to the broad sectoral picture, two features are central in any discussions on women’s employment. First, although the share has declined over time, the bulk of women are employed in agriculture. However, there has been no clear movement away from the agricultural to the non-agricultural sectors as warranted by a modernizing economy; an overwhelming proportion of women remain tied to agriculture. At the same time, many poor women struck by the agrarian crisis have been flooding into construction and related areas. Distress migration of households into other rural and urban areas has been marked and is well-documented. Some of these work - such as brick kilns - are extremely exploitative, with workers tied by credit and debt bondage to layers of contractors who control their lives and work.

Secondly, a striking feature of the hype around the service sector is that a larger proportion of women are employed in education and as domestic workers, and not in trade, the hospitality sector, or communication. In domestic work, wages and work conditions vary widely and work relations are marked by constant individual control. Women may move between construction and domestic work depending on the availability of employment and the pressure of familial responsibilities. Education is perhaps the most hopeful arena in terms of providing women status as independent workers: it allows them to have more control over their work and find fulfillment in it. However, with the increasing privatization of education at all levels, women who work in this sector often face uncertain employment and are at risk of being exploited.

It is frequently argued that the over-representation of women in the informal sector is because of the advantage of flexible work, given women’s role in household maintenance through activities such as cooking, cleaning and caring for children and other family members. While this is an important aspect, the limitations of women in terms of taking up full-time employment are also exploited by employers resulting in low wages and high intensity of work in informal sector.

An important segment of workers, critical to the understanding of the contradictions around women’s work and labour, is that of scheme-workers. This includes Anganwadi workers and helpers of the ICDS, the Mid-Day Meal workers, the ASHAs, and women working in a range of government programmes such as the National Child Labour Project, National Rural Livelihood Mission, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, and MNREGA. These women are not recognized as workers but as volunteers and are not paid wages but honorariums with no social security. With massive budgetary cuts and shifting of responsibilities to the state governments and late disbursement of funds, high sense of job insecurity prevails in this sector. The state’s approach to the sector clearly reveals the inherent structural issues. The assumption, based on the social and cultural perception, that women’s primary responsibility is housework and care of family members and thus they are only secondary earners in the family, underlines many of the related state policies.

The fact that growth areas of women’s paid work are in areas akin to care work which are linked to women’s role as family carers leads to further devaluation of women’s work, both social and economic. Further, many households survive on the basis of the long hours women spend on areas of work that are not counted as an economic activity such as collecting firewood and fodder, collecting water and forest produce, weaving and spinning for home use. Studies have suggested that women’s labour in these areas have increased with neo-liberal economic policies and the loss of paid work for them or other family members. In the absence of any economic independence, women’s livelihoods are tied to marriage and related responsibilities. Reproductive work role of women is perhaps more emphasized in our societies with the demand being made on women to provide full-time domesticity.

To conclude, there is little evidence that socio-cultural prejudices against women’s employment are declining due to modernization, liberalization, or higher literacy rates of women. Thus, there is a need to challenge the stereotyped assumptions about women’s work and women’s role in the economy and society. Household work is a constraining factor for many women workers but there has been no acknowledgment of such pressures at the policy level. Regulation has so far not addressed adequately the problems of unorganized women workers. Implementation of laws that relate to eliminating discrimination in employment and wages are thus critical.     

Neetha N is the acting director and professor at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi.


Neetha N (2014). Crisis in Female Employment: Analysis across Social Groups, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 47, pp. 50-59