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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Blog: Gender norms, time use and labour in India and Bangladesh

Mar 2016

Our study focused on gender and labour by combining in one survey evidence about people’s attitudes about gendered work stereotypes alongside measures of work-time in rural India and Bangladesh.

We aimed initially to examine reasons for India’s declining labour force participation of women between 1983 and 2011. In Bangladesh, we found there were clashes relating to social norms about women as housewives versus the government and NGOs promoting the idea of women as entrepreneurs. In India, our historical survey of women’s labouring, shows they are tending to withdraw from the formal employment sector (around 7 per cent were lost from 1990 to 2011). We are almost ready to publish our findings, but meanwhile the same issue has been noticed by 12 other scholars and the New York Times.

Women’s participation in informal work

To some extent there is a reassertion of the Breadwinner model of the household in rural India. On the other hand, outmigration of men leaves up to 30 per cent of households practically female-headed, and women taking greater responsibility for domestic and informal work. We also found in rural Bangladesh that after telling us, in principle, that women rarely ‘work’, there is still a huge amount of informal work time being spent on two activities by Muslim women there: managing livestock (chickens, cattle, goats, sheep) and vegetable and rice farming.

We also have data from southern Bangladesh and from river areas, where fisheries has been important for over 40 years. Here, the poverty levels are reported to have risen. The returns to fishing have declined while the population dependent on the fisheries – both fish and shrimp – has increased over time. Again, many men migrate out, leaving the few who are living there to work long shifts, nights and repeat shifts. Family members often help out. This management of work is totally informalised and yet contributes to Bangladesh’s Gross National Income. As far as official records go, the value of fisheries is caught further up the chain (not to make a pun). Here fish traders and companies buy the fish from farmbased traders, and when it finally enters the GNI or gross value added figures, often at the time of export, the values are attributed mainly to male urban workers in manufacturing, eg packing. But at village level two data sources are tending to suggest women do involve themselves in fisheries:

  • Interviews show women ‘helping’ – this wording is insulting as they are in fact working.
  • Time-Use records show women spending time on fisheries work.


We know from India’s Kerala experience that women’s work is often undervalued in the Export Industries when they start to manufacture food products for onward sale. Men in marketing, a packing, transport, and ownership roles get more revenue from these primary products upon resale.

Putting this whole story together will take more time, as our primary survey results are only now flowing in. (Another pun, with the river scenes of the Char [island] residents vivid in our minds. And in Uttar Pradesh our respondents live rather near the great Ganges river, whose pollution by manufacturing and fertilizer is a hot issue.)

Mixed methods approach provides rare insights into social norms

Our three year project employs interviews, surveys with complex questionnaires, and time-use diary by recall methods. Secondary data is also used to give a national overview.

As the data are gathered from the two countries in two rounds, covering around 24 villages, we manipulate and study the time-use data. We had set up just 40 categories to label time-use in 15 minute stints. Meanwhile, in 2015, the Indian government announced that it would do a nationwide survey of time-use of the same kind.

This government time-use survey will then invite both economists and a wider range of users to get to grips with such data. Our view is that economics should not dominate the analysis. Economics is a broader discipline than the way it is presently construed. Economic research is a part of development studies making normative interpretations as well as providing facts and models. Thus we feel our time-use study is quite valuable at this key time. The previous studies by Indira Hirway et al. had larger sample size than ours, but they did not have the same range of variables besides time.

For example we have records of women’s and men’s attitudes toward the stereotypical roles women play. The gender of the respondent did not make much difference in attitudes in either Bangladesh or north India’s rural areas, we found. However using nationally representative data from three sources we did find significant regional differences in broad social attitudes about women:

  • Demographic and Health survey measures of women’s autonomy.
  • World Values Survey although its sample size is too small for sub national regions.
  • The National Family and Health Survey on India, which encompasses the DHS.


We did not find a huge amount of time being spent on climate-change adaptation activities such as firewood or water carrying.

We found a wide range of levels of subjective well-being. These were not easily discerned to be explained by any one particular structural factor. Our study has measured the time-use, well-being and employment of both men and women. We are now moving toward the study of which families engaged with NGOs, employment schemes and government benefit schemes. These engagements are more rare than one might hope. In Bangladesh, a strong proportion of households had borrowed from their employers, and reporting of debt from several sources was common. In India, the MNREGA existed in our study areas.

We continue to liaise in our multi-disciplinary teams in the two countries. We are appearing at numerous upcoming conferences including the International Association for Feminist Economics, the Association for Heterodox Economics, the Development Studies Association and our own special Conferences planned for 2016/7 in Varanasi, India, Dhaka and Delhi. We are grateful to our funders, the ESRC, DFID, and British Academy, for making all this possible.


This blog was co-authored by Professor Wendy Olsen at the University of Manchester, and Professor Dr. Anup Kumar Mishra at DAV College BHU, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.

To join our mailing list and get Briefing Papers from this project, please send a short email to wendy.olsen @ Briefings are currently available on Ethics, Sampling, and Factor Analysis. We expect to produce briefings on Mixing Data with Keyness and Discourse Analysis later in 2016. The project is funded by the ESRC DFID Poverty Alleviation grant stream and is supported through direct involvement in research of BRAC University Centre for Gender and Social Transformation (CGST, Dhaka), the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, and the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies (IIDS Delhi).

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The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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