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Normalizing Women’s Subordination: Retrospective Of Women At Work

Women in India: Woman labourers work at a road construction site

This article explores women at work on two levels –how women in power are discriminated at work and how vulnerable women are further marginalized at work. If women with power and position are often lied to, taken advantage of and denied support from people of significance on issues that matter, how bad is it for women who don’t possess any power in their work life?

There have been a lot of conversations around equal pay for women in Hollywood. Did you hear about Robin Wright  publicly declaring that the studio producing House of Cards lied to her? When asked, they told her that she received equal pay as her male counterpart, Kevin Spacey (who as the world discovered as a guile sexual offender) but actually paid her almost 20% less. She then used the power she holds outside of the studio to shame them into paying her what she was due. But how do women who do not possess that kind of agency cope with such discrimination?

As a woman, it has become pertinent to ask – who is driving your story and how often are you able to control your narrative?

Since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, my social media feed has been flooded by stories of urban, in most cases college-educated women who had suffered mental or physical abuse in their lifetime, how those incidences shaped them into who they are and what they had to do to protect their dignity and fight back. These stories are inspiring, and even though it was social media, I was driven to examine some of the new-normals of society in which we exist.

Not very long ago, I was working as a researcher in a big city in South America in an office full of 40+ men (only 3 women worked there at the time). The men at this office would either treat the women as invisible and/or insignificant or regarded them as an object of decoration who needed to be given “special” attention. I kept asking myself – why can’t I be equal amongst you? Who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable going to work every day in such a work environment? Here, men controlled my narrative, not me. This kind of environment will likely deter women from entering the workforce in the first place. Until women rise through the ranks to hold the power to control their story and usher in a meaningful change, this environment has become a new normal in most work places, especially in India.

The Indian woman’s agency at work is threatened.

Women’s agency (and hence their ability to gain any kind of power) at work is threatened in urban societies everywhere to varying degrees but this is especially true in informal economies in India. 95% women in India work in the informal economy either as wage workers or self-employed (as this WEIGO study showed). Post-independence India has been in fact harder on women, since the sex ratio is lower, there has been a decrease in work participation rate, and unemployment rates are increasing ever higher for them. This is even more surprising when you consider that women in the informal sector work for longer hours and contribute more than men in total labour energy expense. 120 million women work informally in India and 51% of women’s labour is unpaid, as per the latest UN Women’s India report,  “Leave No One Behind”.

120 million women work informally in India and 51% of women’s labour is unpaid, as per the latest UN Women’s India report titled “Leave No One Behind”.

During my doctoral research, I lived and interacted with migrant women and women who were left behind in villages of rural Rajasthan (whether they are left behind after the men have migrated for work to urban areas or are widows and young mothers). I understood the sacrifices that these women undertook every single day and the hardships that they encountered; they differed with the difference in their social status or caste. The poorer the rural household, the more extreme the hardships. During this research, I also studied the central government’s 100-day wage guarantee scheme called Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MG-NREGS) that made special provisions for equal participation of women in the work economy, especially for widows and young mothers. In most cases, during my fieldwork, I found that MG-NREGS has in fact exacerbated the stressors on left-behind women who undertook manual labour for MG-NREGS alongside agriculture and housework, while adding very little in terms of their assets.

Women in India earn less than 20% of their male counterparts.

Women who undertake seasonal labour and work on brick kilns and construction sites in villages or in big cities are subject to abuse, revolting sanitary conditions and insecurity of work.  They are paid poorly and often fired, abused and cheapened without any fear of consequences. Women in India, in general, earn less than 20% of their male counterparts. The contractors on informal work sites are abusive and some reports have shown that pregnant women who actively work are likely to have miscarriages as their work requires hard manual labour for long periods of time through abuse and unsanitary conditions.

The contractors on informal work sites are abusive and some reports have shown that pregnant women who actively work are likely to have miscarriages as their work requires hard manual labour for long periods of time through abuse and unsanitary conditions.

Every day, women all over the world are focused on breaking barriers to be able to leave homes to generate income, increase social standing, and help their families. However, in India they are trying to survive in multi-layered dualities. Urban educated women aspire for freedom to break the shackles of power created by glass ceilings. Rural women are still struggling to balance freedom of employment against physical and mental sacrifices at the household level.

Dr Janvi Gandhi Kanakia is an Assistant Professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Views expressed are the author’s own.