A Negative Impact of Female Labor Participation on Empowerment?

Shahidur Rashid Talukar

The concept of labor force participation is important in the context of the economy, since increased labor force participation can influence economic indicators such as the unemployment rate, poverty, and overall standard of living. As women constitute nearly half of the working age population, it is pertinent to look at women’s participation in labor force. It becomes even more important to look at female participation in the labor force because it is related to the issue of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Women at a school in Bangladesh slum, (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Higher participation of women in the labor force is often viewed as empowering; however, recent studies have found that higher participation does not necessarily improve women’s status. Rather, under circumstances, increased participation in the labor force can disempower women and widen the gender gap. While the frequency of women’s work may increase girls’ economic value, which has positive benefits for their survival, girls’ economic value may also increase their parents’ incentives to keep them out of school to maximize their immediate economic returns. A lower literacy rate, in the long run, contributes to disempowerment.

A UN study claims that the increasing participation of women in paid work has been driving employment trends, and the gender gaps in labor force participation rates have been shrinking. Although this has been the general perception, this view has also been debated.

Normally, it is expected that women’s labor force participation will encourage better, not worse, education for girls (Psacharopoulos and Tzannatos, 1991). Nevertheless, the general pattern reviewed across India provides shows the opposite. Understanding the multidimensionality of gender stratification(Mason, 1986) helps us think about other gendered consequences of women’s labor force participation. A multitude of conditions may limit the liberating impacts of work outside the household and, even in the best of circumstances, outside work usually implies a dual burden for wives and mothers.

Studies have found that increased participation of women in the labor force may actually increase the gender gap. An interesting study (Sundaram and Vanneman, 2007) on Indian women illustrates circumstances when higher rates of women’s labor force participation contribute to less rather than more gender equality: More women’s labor force participation may lead to girls ‘being withdrawn from school and put to work; the frequency of girls’ work may restrict their schooling, which widens the gender gap in basic education. Analyses across 409 Indian districts show that girls have relatively lower literacy compared to boys in areas where more women are in the labor force.

An important missing point is that the study does not focus on the kind of employment the women participate in. If the employment avenues are based on formal knowledge and skills, then the literacy rate might have a positive relationship with women’s employment rates. The findings of this study disprove one usual assumption that working empowers people. This result, I believe, is true for men as well. If a worker is not compensated enough, then such work perpetuates poverty, illiteracy, and ill health.

Although the above study does a considerable job analyzing the relationship between women’s participation in the labor force and their literacy rates, the study is largely based on 2001 census data, so a more updated investigation may yield different results. The socioeconomic condition has changed significantly in these 10 years. Also, the overall literacy rate in India has improved from 65% to 74% and the women’s literacy rate has improved as well from 53.67% in 2001 to 65.46% in 2011. As more qualified girls are entering the job market, these findings may not hold anymore. For instance, a good proportion of Call Center workers are female and they are educated. It may change the result that labor participation rate for women has a negative correlation with their literacy rates.

However, although some of the indicators of gender empowerment are encouraging, there are other indicators such as child sex ratio which show that the gender gap is increasing. This implies that the changes are not unidirectional, and hence, nothing can be said for sure without making a proper investigation of the present scenario. Thus, there need to be more studies based on the new data. To conclude, I would say the relationship between increased labor force participation and empowerment are not as obvious as someone may think.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.

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