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The determinant in more women in the job market

There is growing demand from social scientists, governments and international organisations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that women’s participation in the economy/labour market should increase to promote economic growth of India. It is believed that when women’s participation rate, which is one of the lowest in Asia, increases, it will bring prosperity to the Indian economy.

Key factor of patriarchy

Why is women’s participation in the labour market in India so low?

Though there are various explanations such as low human capital, and even discrimination against women, the root cause is patriarchy, which is a social system marked by the supremacy of the father/man in the family, community and society. As Marina Watanabe says, patriarchy is “a social structural phenomenon in which males have the privilege of dominance over females”. This supremacy is manifested: in values, attitudes, and customs in the society; in ownership of assets, incomes and wealth; and in institutes and organisations that govern our society and economy. With economic growth and increasing education, the strength of patriarchy has perhaps declined in some ways. However, the overall culture of male dominance over women has not changed much in our traditional society.

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Under patriarchy, men are considered to be the breadwinners and women are expected to be the homemakers. That is, women are responsible for household upkeep, and for providing care to the child and those who are old, sick and the disabled in the family. Even when there is hired help, it is the woman who is responsible for household upkeep and care.

Though performed with love, this work of women is inferior work for several reasons. This work is unpaid and invisible as time use data are not available on a regular basis in India, and, therefore, not covered under national policies. It is repetitive (performed every day) and boring. There is no upward mobility, and, therefore, a dead-end job. There is no retirement and no pension. This implies that a significant part of the total labour force available to the economy is locked up in low productivity and inferior kind of work, which is performed mainly by women. Women perform this work not necessarily by free choice or by any particular efficiency in this work but because it is largely imposed on women as a social construct. As this work is outside the purview of economic policies, the drudgery of work, the time stress, technology and low productivity of this type of work and working conditions of workers are outside the purview of policy making. This is unjust, unfair, and unacceptable.

As a result, many women do not enter the labour market due to their high domestic responsibilities. When the others enter the labour market, they enter with domestic responsibilities on their shoulders, implying that there is no level playing field for them from the beginning. Again, they usually have lower human capital (thanks to social norms); restricted mobility due to their domestic responsibilities.

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Therefore, their choice is gendered in the labour market. They tend to prefer work that is close to home, part time or flexible work, and which has a safe work environment. Consequently, they overcrowd in stereotyped low productivity jobs and lag behind men in all average labour market outcomes such as participation, wages, and diversification of work. This is clearly not the optimum use of women labour power in the economy. Therefore, women’s participation in the labour market must be raised.

Greater participation, but also exploitation

As women with higher education and professional qualifications in India tend to participate more in the labour market, it is argued by experts that greater women’s education will raise their participation rate in the labour market.

However, this is only half truth, as this increase in participation is backed by an army of domestic workers, who are known to be highly exploited in the Indian economy.

Women’s participation in the labour market can increase at all levels mainly by reducing their burden of unpaid domestic work and care by reducing the drudgery/strain of work or improving productivity of women’s work (for example, providing fuel-efficient stoves in cooking in place of primitive stoves that use fuel wood); by providing infrastructural support to reduce the burden of their work (for example, water supply at the doorstep); by shifting a part of unpaid work to the mainstream economy (for example, child care, disabled care, care of the old can be provided by the government, the market or by civil society organisations to the mainstream economy).

The burden of unpaid domestic work on women can also be reduced by redistributing this work to other household members, mainly men. These steps will release women from the burden of unpaid work to a significant extent and give them free time to acquire higher education and new skills, or to participate in productive work in the labour market.

Address the issue of subordination

If we want not only women’s participation but also gender equality in the labour market, households will have to provide equal opportunities to men and women within the household, i.e., by sharing the “inferior work”, or unpaid domestic work and care by men and women. However, irrespective of sharing, what is critical is removing the subordination of women in the household by sharing the responsibility of unpaid household work by men and women.

On hired domestic workers, there is an International Labour Organization Convention that provides minimum basic rights to domestic workers in the world. These include a weekly day off, limited hours of work, overtime compensation, minimum wages and minimum social security. It is unfortunate that India has not even ratified this Convention. If India raises the participation rate of (well-educated) women in the labour market along with a rapid increase in the size of domestic workers, the gains in terms of economic growth will be lost as it will create a huge army of highly exploited domestic workers also.

Indira Hirway is Professor of Economics, Centre for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad

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