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Global Poverty Research Group

A pluralist account of labour participation in India

Wendy Olsen and Smita Mehta

Global Poverty Research Group

May 2006

SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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Raising women's participation in employment would be a controversial target for Indian economic policy. If women's employment were advocated per se, then women's other roles as unpaid workers, in farming, and in the informal sector would perhaps be ignored. The more women's time is allocated to paid employment, the less of their time is available for unpaid work. Most feminists would argue that the unpaid work done by women tends to get too little attention, and that its social and economic valuation is unreasonably low. The purpose of this article is to give a balanced review of the situation whilst describing the causes that lead to the particular employment outcomes of Indian women ages 16 and over, including inactivity.

Inactivity does not count as unemployment. The International Labour Office (ILO) defines unemployment by requiring that the person be seeking work and also be available for work during a two week period. This definition is used here but is inadequate for treating the non-employment of women. The ILO's definition of labourmarket inactivity has been evolving and now tends to include fewer of the family helpers as 'inactive' than in the past.1 The 'unpaid family helper' nowadays tends to be classified as a 'contributing family worker' (though without pay) (, Sources and Methods section). In this way there is a drift toward higher recorded labour-force participation of women and children.

Among women there was a long-term downward trend in the labour-force participation rates 1901-1971 (Sharma, 1985: 64, citing Mies, 1980: 6). This long-term trend reflected the growth of the distinct role of the housewife over the period 1901-1971 and was unfortunately associated with a rising male sex ratio in the population as a whole (ibid: 63). Since 1971 there has been a stabilisation of women's employment rate, which was 31% in 1970, 31% in 1980, 27% in 1990, and 30% in 2000 in India (UNCDB, variable 4270).

The measures of work participation obtained by the National Council for Agro-Economic Research (NCAER) in their survey in 1997 showed labour force participation rates of 52% among men and 26% among women (Shariff, 1999: 66). A U-curve of employment probabilities exists over education levels. This U curve is stronger among Muslim women than among other women due to a range of factors.

In India it is widely believed that it is prestigious for a woman to cook and serve food to her family and any guests that may come (Dube, 1988). In rural areas for these women to do domestic work only and nothing else is relatively rare. Instead, doing a range of paid and unpaid work, including some tasks that we call 'extra-domestic work', is more common. The tendency of naming a woman as being overall a housewife is popular due to cultural values associated with Sanskritisation, Brahmanical gender norms, and/or the habit of observing purdah (Chakravarti, 1993; George, 2002; Poitevin and Rairkar, 1993).

We begin with a literature review, then introduce the large-scale data set (NSS 55th round) used in the paper and present the results. The interpretation that takes up the last section follows a retroductive logic: what social and cultural mechanisms must or may be operating to create the overall patterns that were observed in the data?

  1. The ILO presents for each five-year period its .Projections and Estimates of female economic activity rate., also found in the UN Common Data Base as variable code 4270, dated on 5-year period centres. See and see also >> United Nations Common Database.

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