Every now and then you hear profound pieces of statistics like, India’s female labour force participation rates drop to x%, ministers saying we need to enhance female labour force participation, policy aiming to increase women in the workforce, etc etc.
While such news makes headlines, there is a paucity of debate on the structural and fundamental aspects of work and women joining the labour force. What gets blatantly ignored meanwhile are questions like what impact does entering the paid labour market have on women’s life vis-a-vis their gender positioning in the capitalist society? Would entering the paid labour market be emancipatory for women in regards to the gender relations observed and practiced in a society that operates on capitalist relations of production? Hence, is entering the labour force an end in itself or does it act as a medium to achieve the end goal of women’s emancipation from capitalist patriarchy?
The answer is not binary in nature and involves an intersectional approach.
Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, the two most prominent critics of capitalism, did not second the contention that capitalism creates separate spheres of equality in their early years. They were of the view that, as women enter the workforce and become independent earners, the patriarchal family would be destroyed. They believed that capitalism would level the playing field for men and women as exploited labourers. Such a neutralizing assumption denies history, structure, and the positioning of subjects. Marx and Engels failed to understand that paid labour markets are institutions that are ‘bearer of gender’. They also failed to recognise that employment can be an effective means of emancipating women from male oppression, but only within the confines of sex-based hierarchical work organisations.
In contrast to what Marx and Engels said, the relationship between capitalism and gender subordination is not linear in nature and operates on a mixture of tendencies. Diane Elson, a British economist notes that entering the paid labour market has a tendency to intensify, decompose, recompose the existing forms of gender subordination. It is ironically natural for people to assume that gender subordination is decomposed when women enter the labour market, however, gender subordination is often intensified as women are not relieved from their unpaid domestic duties which further amounts to a double burden of work.
These tendencies demonstrate that entering the paid labour market is however not the end goal, but the means to achieve the end goal, i.e. emancipation of women workers from capitalist exploitation and patriarchal oppression which is currently witnessed in patriarchal capitalism. The subsequent question that follows then is, is female labour force participation glorified in all its capability? What is of utmost importance is then to observe how international organisations and the state perceive female labour force participation. In other words, what is the gaze set on female labour force participation?
Recent studies by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Goldman Sachs estimate that gender equality in labour participation rates would have a strong positive impact on GDP growth. The income per capita was touted rise by 14 per cent by 2020, and by 20 per cent by 2030 if women’s paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men’s in 15 major developing economies. The International Labour Organization (ILO) enhances this stance and argues that the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could grow by 1.6 trillion USD (US Dollars) if the gender gap in participation moves halfway towards the median gap observed across all countries in the European Union (EU) and North America. It is also noted that the Per Capita GDP of India could be 10 per cent higher by 2020 and 20 per cent higher by 2030 if India’s gender participation gap could be halved. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) further argues that India would be 27 per cent richer if women had participated in the labour market at the same rate as men.
While such statistics could be appealing for policymakers and national governments, what often gets overlooked is how economists and international organisations approach the question of incorporating women into the process of development. Their approach lay emphasis specifically on the economic aspect instead of what would employment mean for women. Such an approach suffers from what Lourdes Beneria would call instrumentalisation and gender mainstreaming.
She describes instrumentalisation as the inclusion of gender in projects for purposes that do not necessarily serve the goal of gender equality, and gender mainstreaming as the attempt to integrate gender issues across programs of national interest.
Instrumentalisation and gender mainstreaming can be observed clearly as international organisations majorly focus on participation rates, not going beyond them, and the recurring theme of participation rates’ effect on GDP supersede every other thing.
It is as if they’re trying very hard to make it about gender equality but some prominent economist jumps up and says, “Yeah, it will have an enormously positive effect on things that matter, the GDP.“
If we observe closely, the approach has two major aspects that should be critically analysed. The first one is, the ‘greater good’ outlook. The backdrop of this outlook is that if women do not achieve their full economic potential, the global/national economy will suffer. It neglects that entry into the paid labour market for women entails a double burden of paid and unpaid domestic work. The outlook embraces the macroeconomic approach that sidelines individual development and freedoms and keeps economic growth at its centre.
The second aspect is that the approach solitarily focuses on female labour force participation as if it is an end in itself and would translate into women empowerment. Even if we believe for a moment that a higher female labour force would translate into women empowerment, the absence of the answer to the question – Where would women be employed?, speaks volumes. When international organisations advocate the increase of female labour force participation, what industry or sector do they really have in mind or are they looking towards sweatshops to absorb the additional female labour supply?
Low female labour force participation rates should only be perceived as an indicator of inequality in access to the labour market while high female labour force rates should not be glorified because they may be driven by poverty and necessity, especially in developing countries like India.
What we have to understand here is that female labour force participation should not be seen in its entirety. As Ester Boserup argued, “It is a focal point to look at the social conditions and background of the workers.” Female labour force participation is shallow if seen in isolation and the focus should rather be on the quality, recognition and remuneration of women’s work and the conditions facilitating it. The real problem for women workers then lies beyond female labour force participation rates in an economy intertwined with capital exploitation and patriarchal oppression.
International organisations and policymakers should be rather bothered about whether women can access better quality jobs beyond sweatshops. The development agenda should try to answer questions like what does employment entail for women. At the end of the day, the goal is to provide opportunities for decent work that will lead to women’s economic empowerment, rather than simply increasing female labour force participation rates.
To reiterate, it would be immensely wrong to view female labour force participation in isolation. The central argument throughout the article is not that participation rates and statistics don’t matter, but rather, statistics hold value only when there is a detailed qualitative analysis. As the popular saying goes ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’.
Banerjee, M. (2019). Gender equality and labour force participation: Mind the gap. ANTYAJAA: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change. 4. 245563271983182. 10.1177/2455632719831827.
Kapsos, S. & Bourmpoula, E. & Silberman, A., (2014). ‘Why is female labour force participation declining so sharply in India?’ ILO Working Papers 994949190702676, International Labour Organization.
Mehrotra, S, & Sinha, S. (2019). Towards higher female work participation in India: what can be done? CSE, 1–24.
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