One of the key narratives in discussions about gender and development has been the potential of increasing women’s access to paid work as a strategy for poverty alleviation.
Much of this discussion has centred on the need to shift cultural and social norms – the unwritten rules of societies that currently restrict how they find work and what types of employment they can access.
Recent synthesis of evidence from more than 10 years of research funded by the ESRC/DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation provides some useful insights into how emerging opportunities for women to enter paid employment interact with these social norms in traditionally conservative contexts.
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Cultural and social barriers
Where established social norms are challenged by women going out to work they may face gossip and stigma within their own communities or worse - verbal, sexual and physical abuse. And men can also face stigma as a result of women going out to work - where it challenges their traditional roles as bread-winners for example.
Women and girls seeking work in the garment industry in parts of Afghanistan face considerable obstacles in even accessing the most basic of training and skills, let alone gaining paid work. This is linked directly to the highly conservative social norms that restrict their ability to secure training, understand the market and, ultimately, find work. Even if they are able to navigate these obstacles simply going out to work outside the home is often socially unacceptable so they must work from home with limited access to facilities, supplies or customers – particularly other women.
Where women are able to take on paid work they are still expected to undertake the bulk of unpaid work in the home caring for the young, old and the sick. This role is vital but is undervalued and means that women are more likely to be time poor and overburdened which can affect their overall health and well-being. It also means that they are less likely to achieve better paid, secure jobs. For married women garment workers in Tiruppur, India, for example, the demands of household and childcare responsibilities made it more likely that they would engage with the lower paid, less secure end of the labour market, even when overqualified for those jobs.
But the researchers that worked with these women found that, while they struggle to overcome a wide range of considerable obstacles, work does provide them with some degree of independence and autonomy that they value. And as they gain independence this in turn enables them to have more voice in decision-making, organise and innovate to further improve their situation.
For the women in Tiruppur the flexible working model, despite lower pay and limited job security, was often seen as advantageous. It meant a more social, less stressful working environment, based at home or in smaller factories that often involved working within kinship networks.
More recent research in India (Harriss-White) found evidence that the garment industry was changing rapidly with a huge shift towards outsourcing and home-working that to some extent reflects these preferences. Some women there were emerging from their homes to acquire the skills to take advantage of this opportunity to enter employment. They were doing this, not through the traditional apprenticeship route, but in informal self-organised training institutes. They were also lobbying, via an unofficial union, for certification from the business association.
These are positive developments but shouldn’t disguise the fact that there is a long way still to go. Many of the increased employment opportunities for women observed by researchers arose as a result of the geographic and social migration of men into more lucrative and prestigious jobs elsewhere or in other sectors. The “opportunity” for women then was to fill a gap in the market for the lower paid jobs vacated by men – in agricultural work for example. You would imagine that this increased demand for labour would drive up wages but for women this wasn’t always the case. Women’s household and childcare responsibilities meant they were less able to travel and needed more flexible hours making them less able to negotiate higher pay. While new and different opportunities are opening up for women to access paid work they still lag behind men, and are unlikely to catch up anytime soon.
Shifting social norms
So what can be done? A gendered view of efforts to support labour market participation is needed that recognises the barriers women face because of society’s, and their own, different expectations of work opportunities and their needs at different stages in their lives. The role of men, and addressing the stigma that they might face, should be a part of this approach.
A successful example of this, in India, is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) that guarantees rural households up to 100 days work per year. To promote women’s empowerment the scheme ring-fences one third of all work for women, offers equal pay and provides childcare. Although uptake has been variable it has had a positive impact on rural women from poor households enabling them to combine work with childcare and household duties, and therefore makes entering work more viable. Research elsewhere suggests that it has helped to increase wages for women, in the agriculture sector particularly, and to reduce wage volatility.
More fundamentally working to shift gender norms globally is clearly vitally important if we are to ensure that women can access necessary skills and training; can enter labour markets and can hope to receive wages in any way comparable to those earned by men.
Flexible part-time work for women is universally less valued, and wage inequality and volatility in these kinds of labour markets remains a problem. What the ESRC/DFID funded research makes clear is that flexible working conditions for women, while they are still expected to undertake the bulk of unpaid work in the home, offers them some opportunity to engage in paid labour. Ultimately the hope is that this might translate into more power and agency for women within the household although, for now, this remains to be seen.