Women at work

Understanding the social norms that restrict women's access to paid work.

Edited by Tracy Zussman
Meet the editor

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.

Continue reading: Cultural and social barriers

Meet the author

Alan Stanley 

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. 

Continue reading: Flexible working


New knowledge on the gendered nature of poverty and wellbeing
Impact Initiative, 2017
A gendered understanding of poverty is crucial for exploring its differing impacts. Women, in particular, may be vulnerable to the effects of poverty and the causes of women’s poverty, and how poverty is experienced, may differ from men. Neither women nor men, however, are a homogenous group and how poverty is experienced depends on other intersecting issues such as age, class, ethnicity, disability etc.
Gender Evidence Synthesis Research Award (ESRA)
ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research, 2015
A gendered understanding of poverty is crucial for exploring its differing impacts and this analysis provides valuable insights in a number of key areas. This evidence is a synthesis from 122 research grants awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and UK Department for International Development (DFID) Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research since 2005.The insights could have particular relevance as governments focus on working towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that include commitments on gender equality across the board.
Gender, youth and urban labour market participation: evidence from the tailoring sector in Kabul, Afghanistan
Overseas Development Institute, 2014
The creation of good jobs and decent work in conflict-affected places is widely seen to generate not just better-off households, but also safer societies and more legitimate states. However, so much of the good jobs agenda is dominated by technical approaches more concerned with balancing out supply and demand than with serious analysis of the role of institutions, identity and power in mediating access to opportunities.
Labouring for global markets: Conceptualising labour agency in global production networks
Elsevier, 2017
This article starts with the recognition that labour has received less than its fair share of empirical and analytical attention in scholarship on global production networks. Little is known about how jobs for export markets fit into workers’ wider livelihoods strategies, or how workers react to new employment opportunities available to them. Based on evidence from the Tiruppur garment cluster in Tamil Nadu, South India, the article takes labourers, their livelihoods and their social reproduction as its starting point.
Income-generating activities for young peoplein southern Africa: Exploring AIDS andother constraints
Wiley Online Library, 2010
This paper reports on a study with rural young people (aged 10–24 years) in Malawi and Lesotho, focusing on their opportunities to learn skills and access capital and assets to engage in income-generating activities (IGAs). Participatory group exercises and individual interviews provide many examples of how young people learn skills and start small businesses, as well as an insight into their strategic thinking about engaging in these livelihood options. Various factors, including the effects of AIDS, are shown to affect young people's prospects of succeeding in their ventures.
Balancing paid work and unpaid care work to achieve women’s economic empowerment
Institute of Development Studies UK, 2015
This policy briefing argues that women's economic empowerment can lead to economic growth but it is important to understand it as not simply about labour force participation, but also about the choice to work, the choice of sector, location and working hours. It looks at the interactions between the market and the household and the consequences of unpaid care work on the type, location and nature of paid work that women and girls can undertake, thereby impacting their economic empowerment.
Paid work, women’s empowerment and inclusive growth: Transforming the structures of constraint
UN Women, 2013
Drawing on household survey data collected in Egypt, Ghana and Bangladesh as part of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium, this report provides insights into the ‘resource’ pathways that enhance women’s agency and thereby contribute to the inclusiveness of the economic growth process. Moreover, it looks at the extent to which the structure of economic opportunities, generated by a country’s growth strategies, translated into positive impacts on women’s lives in these three country contexts. Briefly, the findings suggest that economic growth alone does not promote gender equality.

Flexible working

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. 

Continue reading: Shifting social norms


‘Pudumai’ -Innovation and institutional churning in India’s informal economy: A report from the field
OpenDocs, 2014
Despite the fact that the informal economy accounts for about two thirds of GDP and 90% of employment in India , the informal economy seems absent from almost all discussions of any kind of low carbon revolution in the country. Does it play such a negligible role in pollution as many have assumed and would it be an obstacle to a low carbon revolution. This paper focuses on the sector’s own capacity to adopt the kind of technological and organisational changes that would be needed in order to innovate and asks whether and how innovation takes place in the informal economy. 
Dalits and local labour markets in rural India: experiences from the Tiruppur textile region in Tamil Nadu
Wiley Online Library, 2013
This article asks how labour markets are changing in the context of wider transformations in the rural economy. Drawing on evidence from two villages in southern India, which are both close to, and deeply affected by, a major textile industry cluster, the article examines local labour markets, arguing that labour market segmentation is not simply caste-based. While some Dalits from one village have gained access to jobs in export markets, the same group of Dalits from another village have not.
Innovation in India's Informal Economy
Council for Social Development, India, 2015
This paper examines the ubiquitous formal-informal duality of Indian economy through a case study of Arni, a Moffusil town of Northern Tamil Nadu. Arni is populated by about one lakh people; the majority of them are low castes. Informal sector dominates the economy of the town, but formal-informal linkages are strong and visible everywhere. The socio-economic life of the town is inextricably interwoven with the formal-informal duality which apparently lies at ease, unnoticed by the inhabitants and actors of the formal and the informal economy.

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.

Continue reading: Back to introduction


Social protection and wellbeing: Food security in Adivasi communities, Chhattisgarh, India
Wellbeing and Poverty Pathways, University of Bath, 2014
Despite economic growth, persistent levels of absolute poverty remain across the world. Social protection is an important response to this, guaranteeing a basic level of income support. The state of Chhattisgarh, India, provides an interesting model, as government commitment and people’s action combine to buttress food security in communities with historically high levels of disadvantage. New research on wellbeing and poverty in Chhattisgarh provides an innovative perspective on these issues.
Labouring for global markets: CSR lessons from a South Indian textile export cluster, Global Insights Briefing, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
University of Sussex, UK, 2010
This briefing explores the ways in which Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies affect labour regimes and the lives of workers at manufacturing sites in the Global South. It describes workers’ reactions to these policies, and the choices they make when faced with different regimes of work.
The impact of a global value chain in South India on the rural areas in its vicinity
University of Sussex, UK, 2010
The expansion of garment manufacturing in Tiruppur has transformed the surrounding countryside as well as the town, both as garment manufacturing has spread into the countryside and through the knock-on effects of having a dynamic and relatively labour intensive industrial sector nearby. It has provided a valuable alternative to agriculture as agriculture has been running into problems. Many of the people previously employed in agriculture have moved into garment manufacturing and associated activities as the garment sector has expanded.
MGNREGA in Tamil Nadu: A Story of Success and Transformation?
Wiley Online Library, 2014
Social protection has emerged as a key driver of development policy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is widely considered a ‘good thing’ that has the potential not only to alleviate poverty and vulnerability, but also to generate more transformative outcomes in terms of empowerment and social justice.Based on an ethnographic study of the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), India's flagship social protection policy, this paper takes a critical look at what this policy's ‘success’ consists of.