This paper explores the contradictions and contestations that characterize debates about the relationship between paid work and women’s empowerment. It suggests that this absence of consensus appears to reflect differences of context. It reflects other factors as well. It reflects changes in the social meaning of work over time. It reflects differences in the way that empowerment is conceptualised: the emphasis given to the personal and the political, to individual and collective action, and to agency versus structure in processes of change. Finally, contestations reflect the nature of the work in question, since varying terms and conditions of work hold out varying potentials for transformative change in women’s lives. Evidence suggests that shifts in the balance of power within individual women’s lives do not necessarily translate into shifts in underlying structures of constraint. The paper suggests that it is the capacity of women to organise around their needs, interests and rights that is most likely to result in public recognition of their rights as workers, as women and as citizens.