Popular misconceptions about women in the labour force include the narrative that women don’t work or that women do not want to work in productive employment. Due to cultural and societal pressures, women are often engaged in solely unrecognized work within their homes.
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Further, women’s access to education and work-related opportunities are severely limited as compared to their male counterparts, which pushes their work to be within the precincts of their homes. To understand how women’s work can be perceived and how their work may enhance economies, it is important to consider the economic history of women’s labour.
THE ECONOMIC HISTORY OF WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
To take one of the most powerful economies in the world, the United States of America, as an example of women’s role in the economy; despite the U.S.’s economic prowess, it lacks significantly in employing women in its workforce. It falls behind many other developing countries and developed nations, which highlights the need to re-evaluate the gender gap when measuring the growth of economies. This lack of representation of women in the workforce is not simply a result of present policies, rather, it is the result of historical processes that led to the lack of representation.
In the U.S., for instance, women in the early 20th century did not work beyond their homes. The distinction between paid and unpaid work is, fundamentally, a distinction between whether the work is carried out within the home or outside of it and by whom. For women, work was, primarily, household chores (which presumably were much more tedious than they are today because of the lack of technology) and small-scale family-owned production like making jams and knitting.
During the early 20th century, only a meagre 20% of all women were employed outside their homes and were called “gainful workers.” Out of the 20% of women who participated in paid employment, only 5% of them were married women.
Further, these statistics vary across race and region in the U.S. alone. Between the 1930-40s, World War II pushed women into the workforce as factories could not sufficiently employ men alone as they were deployed for war.
Women began entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before, and opportunities for clerical jobs rose, which were all dominated by women. Educational opportunities for women became more accessible with being able to earn. By the 1970s, women’s role in the productive force of the economy increased, and for the first time in history, women spent most of their adult life working outside their homes.
But, if we consider this growth of the economic potential of women and their share in the workforce, a fundamental problem present in the gender gap is revealed: women are not inherently seen as potential for economic growth. Only during exceptional times like war, women are encouraged to earn and participate in the workforce.
SOCIOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF WOMEN'S REPRESENTATION
In focusing heavily on women’s participation in the economy, there is a lack of discussions on sociological and cultural perspectives about the gender gap. In terms of women’s access to employment, sociological reasons confound women’s access to education, childcare, and employment.
For instance, in India, anganwadis have increased women’s role in the economy, which showcases how access to childcare can help women to work (Anganwadis are child care centres sponsored by the Central Government of India, which have helped to raise female employment). In cultures, such as India, married women who are working are often looked down upon because women are expected to solely work inside the house.
The work within homes like caregiving, cooking, and cleaning is unpaid labour that is expected to be done by women without any help from the menfolk. This leads to women being limited in terms of time, energy and aspirations for pursuing work outside their homes, which is recognised and paid.
A lack of share in the workload by men within the home leads to double work for women. In India, on average, men spend only about an hour or even less in unpaid labour within the home while women spend more than six hours in unpaid labour. This also implies that men can develop further specific skills to improve their standing in the job market, which should not be discounted for when discussing the disparity in skill sets between women and men. The exhaustion of women when doing both housework and paid work is also a cause for them to leave the workforce post-childbirth more easily than men when they attain fatherhood.
THE CURRENT STATE OF WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
The historical and sociological perspectives for understanding women in the workforce has to be juxtaposed with their current state of employability and participation in the workforce. In India, only 17.7% of women are in the workforce, while 55.5% of men are employed in paid labour. The stark reality in terms of statistics reflects the gender gap in the society accurately. Even worse is the fact that, among the working women, more than 54% are employed in the informal sector.
Among these women, in India, caste and region determine their access to employment and education as well. This further highlights that women in the workforce are not simply out of the workforce because they don’t want to work, rather they do not get to work because of sociological and economical reasons.
THE NEED TO BRIDGE THE GENDER GAP
The gender gap in the workforce is not limited to India alone. It is a global problem. The gender gap in the workforce, interestingly, does not reflect a correlation with education levels as well. Female labour/workforce participation (FLWP) has been steadily decreasing throughout the world because the economies are getting more unstable than ever. With decreasing job security, women’s jobs are the most threatened.
Lack of mobility (social and economic) has proven to be a disadvantage for women because corporations prefer to evict females rather than males in times of financial instability, irrespective of women’s educational capacities. Despite having higher educational qualifications, women are not “desirable” for employment simply because of biases based on gender.
If the economic growth of countries is the primary focus, women’s role in the paid labour force is advantageous for countries. Globally, we are losing about 160 trillion dollars every single year by disallowing women to engage in the workforce. Further, the economic participation of women in the developing world entails a more digitized and independent family system.
In Senegal, for example, women are primarily employed in the agricultural force. However, their role in agriculture does not mean the families are food secure. Hence, by employing women in diversified fields like agricultural production, that is, moving from the primary to the secondary sector, women are able to make an entire family food secure. The lack of options for women in the workforce forces them to leave the workforce, which pushes their families toward more insecurity.
This does not only apply to the developing world. Rather, allowing women to be promoted within corporations accords more recognition of their talent and ambitions and increases the social acceptance of women in positions of power. It further encourages other women to be ambitious and improves productivity as proven by researchers. In turn, it breaks a cycle of being accustomed to viewing only men in positions of power and begins a trend of improved profits for corporations as well.
Women participating in the workforce also leads to a dramatic reduction in poverty levels and increases in education levels. Studies prove that with basic education for every female, countries can increase their GDP by 0.37% every year. In absolute numbers, even a 0.3% increase in GDP boosts the economy and relatively improves economic stability.
Further, social pressure on men to be the sole bread earners is also negated. In countries of the Global South, participation of women in the workforce leads to a reduction in domestic violence and more freedom for women.
A saddening decline of women in the workforce and the sudden decline of women in leadership positions showcases a trend of the gender gap during economically tough times. Despite women having more qualifications and talent, social and cultural notions prevent them from occupying positions in the paid labor force which creates a toxic cycle of gender disparity and a lack of holistic economic growth.
For increasing participation of women, it is imperative for governments to roll out more gender-inclusive programs in education, childcare, and empowerment while private corporations should redefine the perspective of women occupying paid positions and attempt to consciously break the cycle of female unemployment. This also implies that within their homes, women should experience more equality and gain access to opportunities.