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9-min read

A Job Well Done: Busting the working woman myth

Yogendra Yadav & Sanjay Kumar |

Updated:January 25, 2008, 10:11 PM IST
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A Job Well Done: Busting the working woman myth

Here are some common impressions about the Indian women:

-- Except in the big cities, most women stay at home while their men go out to work

-- Women don’t want to work, especially if it involves going out of their home

-- Working women face social disapproval and loss of respect in their family

-- Working women in urban India have a relatively ‘easy’ life

You may have come across some of these impressions and may have wondered if these are well founded. You may of course have noted the very narrow definition of ‘work’ involved here, as if any work that does not get paid for is not work.

You may have asked yourself if it is fair not to regard household work as work. Besides, you may have had doubts about some of the ‘facts’ implicit here.

The Indian Express-CNN-IBN-CSDS survey quizzed about 4,000 women, a little over half in urban India, across 20 states to check how well founded these impressions are. The findings expose many myths and reveal a new face of the working women in India.

There is already enough data to debunk some of these notions. The official Time Use Survey has already demonstrated that if household work in included as a part of work, an average woman works about an hour more than an average man on any given day.

Even if ‘work’ is defined narrowly to mean paid work, the Census shows that about one quarter of Indian women work.

The Work Participation Ratio, as the Census calls it, is actually almost three times higher in villages than in the cities. A majority of the ‘working women’ in India do not go any office. Nearly 70 per cent of them work in the fields, either their own or as a labourer in someone else’s.

The present survey supplements the available information with data on experience and attitudes towards work. There is, for instance, simply nothing to support the impression that women don’t want to work:

-- Three-fourths of all women including homemakers think that there is nothing wrong about women going out to work. Only one out of every eight women was opposed to the idea of working women.

-- When women who were not currently doing any paid work were asked if they would like to work, given a chance to work from their own home, the verdict was a clear 6:1 in favour of wanting to work. One-third of those who were currently working also preferred the option to work from home.

-- Thinking about the future generation, two-thirds of ‘non-working’ women would like their daughters to work rather than stay at home and look after the family. The higher the education, the greater is the desire for their daughter to work.

How many women work?
Work participation rate of women (All)
Rural women
Urban women

(Source: Census of India- 2001)

Work participation rate refers to percentages of women worker to total women population

More than two-thirds of working women engaged in agricultural work
Agricultural labourers
Household enterprises
(Source: Census of India- 2001)


This is not to say that they undervalue household work. It is just that they would like to be equal in whatever that is valued by the society. If they could they would like the household work to be valued in money.

Two-thirds women cutting across all sections agreed with the proposition that a share of household income should be paid to women for their household work.

Such an overwhelming support indicates a fundamental shift in orientation. For most women, especially those from the poorer background, earning money is obviously the most important if not the sole reason to work.

But for women from the upper class, which goes under the euphemism of ‘middle class’, who are into white-collar occupations, job satisfaction and social respect is also emerging as a big factor.

Even if respect is not the primary motive for everyone, one thing is clear: gone are the days when working women were looked down upon.

Working women in general and those in white-collar jobs in particular feel they get more respect in family because they work.

A majority of working women said that they would still work, even if they had all the money required for leading a comfortable life. The figure was much higher among the highly educated professionals, thus indicating a big shift in orientation to work.

Clearly, then, cultural resistance is not the main reason that keeps women’s participation in labour force much lower than men. We have to look for reasons elsewhere.

First of all women do not have equal opportunity in the field of education as well as employment.

They lag behind in education and face various forms of overt and covert biases in the labour market. Besides, they face various other obstacles when they do get to work:

-- One out of three working women said they were not paid equal wages for the same work as done by men in their work place. This violation of the law was obviously much higher in the unorganized sector.

-- One out of seven women said they did not get the position they deserved in their organization

-- One out of five working women under the age of 45 complained of verbal or physical harassment at their work place.

-- Women of course prefer to work under women rather than under men, but for a majority of women this did not matter.

-- Childcare was a major difficulty for most working women. A majority of wage earning women employed in manual labour did not have any child care support and had to take the children to work or leave them on their own. For office going women, their family was the biggest support. One out of eight office goers could afford a paid child care.

Given an opportunity, even non-working women would like to work from home
Would like to work from home
Not like to work even from home
Upto 25 years

Rest said 'not sure'; Note: Question was asked only to non-working women below 55 years of age

Question wording: (If not working and younger than 55), If you get an opportunity to work from home, would you then like to work?

A third of working women would like to work from home
Would like to.........
Go out for work
Work from home
Stay at home and taking care of family
Rest is No Opinion

Note: This question was asked to workingwomen only

Question wording: (If working), If you had a choice, would you prefer to go out of house to work, work from home or would you prefer not to work and take care of the family?


Add to this the double burden of work and you begin to understand the condition of the working women. Working women in the villages did nearly as much household work as well as their counterparts who stayed back at home, thus pushing more than ten hours of work everyday.

Working women in the metros could reduce their household work somewhat but they too ended up spending more than nine hours on an average. The burden was much higher for a large number of women in full time employment than indicated by these average figures.

Much of the difficulties that working women face can of course be reduced, provided there is willingness to match the generous rhetoric of ‘women’s empowerment’ with some concrete action.

That may not be a bad idea for a Republic Day resolution as the first woman president of the Republic takes the salute.

High degree of approval for women to work
Women should work

Should not Work

and look after family
Young educated urban women
Non-working women
Rest had no opinion; Note:Figures are calculated for women within 18-59 age group; Educated women are those who have attained education above matric. Question wording: People have different opinions about a woman going out to work. Some people feel that women should not work and they should only look after their families, while others say that there is nothing wrong if women go out for work. What is your opinion?

Man or woman as boss is not an issue
Working women who would prefer....
Man as their boss
Women as their boss
No difference

Rest said No Opinion Note: Question was asked to workingwomen only

Question wording: (If working), If you could choose, would you like to work under a man or woman or it does not make any difference to you?

Majority of working women work to earn money
Women work in order to.........
Earn money
Have respect in society
For job satisfaction

Rest no opinion Note: Question was asked to workingwomen only

Question wording: (If working), There are different reasons for which women work- some work in order to earn money, some in order to have respect in society while some work because like their work. Which one most applies to you?

All workingwomen are not equally respected in family
Office goers Manual worker
Get more respect
Get less respect
No difference

Rest is No Opinion Note: Question was asked to workingwomen only

Question wording: (If working) Would you say that you are respected more in your family because you work; you are less respected because you work or whether you work or not makes no difference?

Passion, not money encourages women to work
Would work in spite of having all the money
Would not work if had all the money
Office goers
Manual worker 42 40

Rest is No Opinion Note: Question was asked to workingwomen only

Question wording: (If working), Imagine that you had all the money you needed to have a comfortable life, would you still choose to work?

Problems of working women at work place
*Are paid less than men for equal work
**Do not get deserving position
Faced harassment

Rest had no opinion Note: Figures for harassment are based on an index created from questions as to whether or not the respondent faced harassment at work place at least once in the last one year. Women above 45 years and no opinion are also excluded from the analysis.

Question wording: * (If working), At the place you work, are men and women always paid alike for equal work? ** (If working), Would you say that at your work place you are given the position and respect you deserve or not?

***: (If working), We of ten hear that women also face different forms of harassment at their work place. Please tell me in the last one year, how often have you expressed cheap comments and verbal abuse or physical harassment at your work place- never, once or twice, five-seven times or many times

Family support for taking care of children not available to all working women
Occupation embers
Children on their own
Paid support
Office goers
Self employed (other than agriculture)
Manual worker

Rest said 'others';

Note: The question was asked to working women only; Figures for married working women aged 40 years. Family members include husband, parent/n-laws, relatives; Children on their own includes taking along also.

Greater burden on working women
Time spent on…
Household work
Going out for work
House wives in villages
Working women in villages
Housewives in metro
Working women in Metro

Note: All figures in hours for married women only.

Question wording: “Women spend their time doing different things. Now I am going to read out a few activities. Thinking of yesterday (if the last day was a holiday, refer to last working day), please tell me how much time did you spent on one of them?”

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