The Gendered Nature of the Labour Market: Its Consequences for Women.

    • By,
      Arushi Jha Thakur – Academic Associate, Kautilya

Labour Markets have historically been gendered in nature. This is very prominent when we look at the statistics of female labour force participation around the world. Women continue to be vastly underrepresented in various labour markets. United Nations for Gender Equality and Empowerment for Women, for instance, have highlighted that women hold a meagre 26.4% of the parliamentary seats and 28.3% of managerial positions globally. India’s labour market paints a picture no different with a trend of just 24.5% of women’s labour force participation against 75.5% for men. Further, women are grossly underpaid and burdened with unpaid labour care, which hampers their employment opportunities.

While female workforce participation did grow tremendously in the 21st century with globalisation having incentivised female employment, it rose in tandem with rising informality and precarity around the world. With rising costs of labour, the globalisation of the production processes led to the emergence of various capitalist strategies that relied on exploiting the existing “patriarchal subordination of women as a gender” to increase their competitiveness in the global market. This is done by way of “primitive exploitation of labour” that is, extracting the maximum conceivable labour at minimum costs. Employers viewed women workers as disposable and redundant, only to be exploited ruthlessly and replaced with an unlimited supply of incoming young women workers. Additionally, lower returns to women’s labour to men and lack of employment alternatives for women made hiring them more attractive. Trade liberalisation during the early 1980s led to an emergence of a global export-oriented garment industry in developing countries that led to a huge expansion of female employment. Therefore while globalisation had led to the availability of wage employment for women in third-world countries in the export manufacturing sector, the quality and security of these employment opportunities and wages accrued were extremely low and informal. Moreover, Elson and Pearson (1981) argued that these capitalist labour processes used women’s domestic responsibilities as a reason to assign them a secondary status in the labour market and cheapen the cost of labour.

The labour market functions based on the established socially gendered practices pervasive in our society. Due to the patriarchal nature of the world, the public sphere and rules of the labour market have been constructed in a manner that supremes male interests and perpetuates women’s subordination in the labour market, especially in the formal labour market. For example, the concept of work timings, such as late-night meetings, long hours of work, overtime, etc., fails to take into account child-rearing practices or household responsibilities outside of the job, which is predominantly done by women.

As the workspace is male-designed and does not take into account the reproductive labour demanded from women outside of the workplace, the formal labour market lacks flexibility and restricts their employment opportunities to mostly the informal sector. For instance, in the case of the Indian labour market, women constitute 23% of the employment in the informal sector. However, it is seen that 91% of Indian women that are in paid work are in the informal sector. While many attribute these developments to a lack of literacy and education, it is seen that despite rising educational levels among women, female labour force participation has not followed through with increased employment opportunities and wages. This is a result of the exclusionary and gendered nature of these jobs, and the resultant low returns and employment alternatives to education for women push women out of the labour market.

In Diane Elson’s (1999) words, “markets are the bearers of gender.” These markets operate at the intersection of the productive and reproductive economies. Elson describes productive economies as economies consisting of market oriented activities which accrue monetary compensation and reproductive economies as those that essentially reproduce the labour force by way of unpaid care and non-monetary activities predominantly borne by women. Productive economies are structured to depend on women’s unpaid reproductive labour, which the labour market fails to acknowledge. Thus, these labour market institutions are created to reflect the “costs of reproductive labour” to the employers but not the long-term benefits accrued to them. For instance, an employee taking time off for parenting duties is seen as a liability for the employer. Yet, the benefits of reproductive labour in the maintenance and reproduction of labour are not taken into account. This disadvantages women and weakens their bargaining power in terms of their earnings and employment.

The formal and informal regulations via which the labour markets operate represent our gendered society in which these labour market functions. These gendered practices thus translate into unequal employment opportunities and earnings for women and gendered labour markets. Therefore women in the labour markets experience various forms of gender discrimination, either in the form of the gendered division of labour, restricted mobility, low wages, low returns to education, feminisation of low-paid jobs, etc. That being the case, participation in the labour market alone will not correct the institutional inequality of access to the job market and equitable wages in the absence of institutional changes. It is important to look beyond just the numerical numbers of labour force participation and focus on addressing the traditional unequal gender roles restricting women to households, limiting their mobility and improving women’s accessibility to sustainable employment, and engendering the labour market.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.