Maiden India: Work

Women and work in India, part lived experience and part data

Aditi Roy Bhowmick
7 min readJun 13, 2022

When women of my mother’s generation worked, they mostly had jobs, not careers. The women of my grandmother’s generation worked “out of compulsion”.

In the 60s, my father’s mother managed to escape the violence in Bangladesh with her children in tow. One afternoon, she had set off with other women in the refugee camp in Bihar (India) looking for a cleaning job but fate landed her at a stable government job instead, despite her lack of formal education. This led to a decades-long clerical career at the district collector’s office in West Champaran district (Bihar). Her patriarchal ideas aside, my grandmother is a woman who can hold her own in a room full of Bihari men. She remains to this day headstrong. Her thick skin and stubborn self helped her survive, and even thrive, in a corrupt and masculine work environment for decades. Her mother (i.e. my great-grandmother) had also taken on a job as a local school-teacher during the refugee camp days. They both entered the workforce to make ends meet.

My grandmother was never a very compassionate person. My father, when younger, mistook this as a consequence of her being a working woman. When he had a family himself, he was wary of allowing my mother to work. When I was in seventh grade, I wrote him a letter explaining to him that it’s unfair of him to invest his whole heart in my professional fulfillment and financial independence, and yet not extend the same empathy to my mother. The one thing I admire the most about my father is his ability to grow and adjust priors. He got my point from that seventh grade letter and my mother’s career as a pre-primary school teacher began. She barely knew how to operate any technology back then. Fifteen years later, she has taught 2–3 year olds on Google Meet every day of the working week during the pandemic. At fifty-two, she continues to work because her trade as a teacher is now a part of her identity. The next generation is me. With my precious privilege of being able to own my labor market decisions, I’ve been building a career as a development economics researcher and organization-builder.

This has been my personal story of Indian women in the workplace from 1960–2022. No other woman in my family “works”. But what has been the parallel story outside my household surrounding women and the workplace? You’ve all seen some version of the fateful graph below.

Source: Data from National Statistical Offices compiled by the ILO

Much has been written about the top-line statistic of declining female labor force participation in India. We are still scratching the surface of the what data-wise, we’re very far from decisively answering the why. Some big questions in my mind that I seek in the data are — what kind of work have Indian women taken on since the 90s? When do they exit the labor market? Which women are working what kinds of jobs? What is the analog of the 70 cents to a dollar gender wage gap in India?

But hold on. Remember how I said my paternal great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and I are the only women in our family who have “worked” across generations? Let’s dissect that. All the other women in my life have labored away at home supporting families of various sizes, always on their feet, well into old age, implementing an array of tasks — cooking, laundry, cleaning, buying vegetables and groceries, fetching water from the handpump when one became available, feeding and rearing the livestock at home. The first to wake, the last to rest. Would we consider their labor “work”?

Is work the use of one’s labor to produce goods and services? If so, all women in my family have worked and participated in the economy indirectly. Now, is work the use of one’s labor to produce goods and services and earn monetary compensation for it? If so, four women out of at least a dozen across the generations have been “working women” in my family. As of 2019, based on the first Indian national time-use survey, more than half of the ~200,000 women surveyed labor away without pay. The contrast against the reported primary occupations of men is stark.

Growing up in India, one knows how unlikely it is for a man to be employed in domestic duties only. Indian men and women labor, but only the former get compensated. This aligns remarkably well with the Marxist feminist definition of patriarchy: a system designed to control female labor. The central idea is that there is a tension between individual and group welfare. To break down econ-speak into more sensible language, if all the women in my family did not do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetching water and so on for free, the family (i.e. the group) would suffer. If my maternal aunt decided that she was better off working as a tailor’s apprentice and making some money of her own, the men in her family would have less time to make their money instead. A one-sided bargain is struck. We know it as the gendered division of labor. Under this bargain, the woman labors away for the group welfare as opposed to the individual welfare. The irony is that she never had a say in the bargain.

To the narrow extent that women are reporting getting paid for their labor, what jobs are they taking on? Let’s look at that time-use survey data once more.

This graph shows you the female share of respondents who mentioned each industry when asked about their primary occupation in the 2019 Time Use Survey. Pretty remarkable. But when you really think about it, it’s not surprising. Ask the average Indian what jobs they associate with women — teacher, nurse, weaver, beautician, and so on would be the honest and immediate responses. One also notices that domestic help across urban India are almost always female. That tobacco manufacture is such a female labor intensive industry is probably niche knowledge among those who have researched, mobilized and worked with women in the informal labor sector. This particular survey is useful because it reveals some information about the mammoth informal sector that represents the lion’s share of Indian livelihoods. The IMF puts the share of workers in the unorganized sector at a staggering 83%. To the extent that women participate in the economy outside their homes, 81.8% of their labor is swept up by the informal economy, and therefore, data wise, typically swept under the rug.

Low formal employment rates for women across urban and rural India aside, there is hope on the horizon. It’s hard to miss the exuberance around India’s burgeoning startup industry over the past two years. In 2021, India witnessed the largest number of startups turning unicorns. There are female founders in the mix, dealing with discrimination in credit access and sexism but they are making themselves heard, and how. Less than 2% of the record-shattering venture capital raised by founders last year went to female founders. In an inspiring move, Ragini Das, a female founder to watch out for, launched an early-stage startup fund exclusively for female founders that is appropriately called “the table”. If you’ve been on social media, especially Instagram, during the pandemic years, it has been hard to miss the ever-erupting number of female owned brands. These range from the best of sustainable fashion, thoughtful menstruation products, to my absolute favorite coffee brand in India (i.e. The Sleepy Owl). When I scroll through the pages, I am delighted to find women my age running the game. And then there is Falguni Nayar, who doubled the number of self-made Indian female billionaires (from one to two…) and became the wealthiest female billionaire in India in 2021. Her retail company, Nykaa, which started out as a make-up retail brand, went public in 2021 and listed at 13 billion USD. There you have it, a female billionaire held up by female consumers in India. Increasingly, successful and wealthy Indian actresses are hiring women with venture capital experience to channel their capital to female-led businesses. This stuff never used to happen in the India of the nineties.

All of this female boss-lady action is mostly concentrated among the rich in India’s giant metropolises though. What does the Economic Census, a decennial census of all non-agricultural establishments in India, tell us about female firm ownership in India over the last three decades?

Obviously female entrepreneurship in India has a long road ahead. The whisper of a beginning in urban, historically privileged caste India is regardless hard to miss. Women are emerging as job creators in a society that doesn’t allow that role for women. I hope this bug spreads. More female entrepreneurs could lead to more females working. Female bosses may want to hire mostly-female staff and the latter may be more comfortable working in these spaces. And the greatest hope of all, more women in my country will have an income of their own, that they can spend without asking a man for permission, and participate in the economy as a producer and consumer on their own terms. More women will be visible in the economy. However, as our wealthiest female billionaire rightly points out in an interview with Forbes, easing capital constraints and institutional incentives aren’t enough. The groundwork of female economic liberation starts at home, at the dinner table with the men — more often than not, the husband.

This is an excerpt from a larger work-in-progress writing project.