Through the Magnifying Glass: Women's Work and Labour Force Participation in Urban Delhi

A study conducted in urban Delhi through a household survey between September and November 2006 estimates a greater female workforce participation rate than recorded in the National Sample Survey. It indicates undercounting and reflects the informality that surrounds women's work. This paper seeks to explore the nature of women's workforce participation and attempts to identify key factors influencing women's decision to work, the type of work they do, the constraints they face, and the perceived benefits and costs of engaging in paid work outside the home. In doing so, issues surrounding the methodology and underestimation of women's work within the urban context are also tackled. The study also suggests the need to understand the familial and household context within which labour market decisions are made. The role of family and kinship structures to determine women's work-life choices emerge as an important area for further study.


Through the Magnifying Glass: Women’s Work and Labour Force Participation in Urban Delhi

Ratna M Sudarshan, Shrayana Bhattacharya

A study conducted in urban Delhi through a household survey between September and November 2006 estimates a greater female workforce participation rate than recorded in the National Sample Survey. It indicates undercounting and reflects the informality that surrounds women’s work. This paper seeks to explore the nature of women’s workforce participation and attempts to identify key factors influencing women’s decision to work, the type of work they do, the constraints they face, and the perceived benefits and costs of engaging in paid work outside the home. In doing so, issues surrounding the methodology and underestimation of women’s work within the urban context are also tackled. The study also suggests the need to understand the familial and household context within which labour market decisions are made. The role of family and kinship structures to determine women’s work-life choices emerge as an important area for further study.

We would like to thank Sukti Dasgupta for her interest and inputs in this paper. We are grateful to Suman Bery for giving us access to a random sample for Delhi, which formed the basis for the Institute of Social Studies Trust survey, and to R K Shukla and his team at NCAER for assistance with the sampling design. Uma Rani made valuable suggestions for the design of the questionnaire and we are grateful for her inputs. The survey has been coordinated by Shrayana Bhattacharya and we would like to thank the students of Delhi University and the volunteers from the ISST Community Centre who carried out the survey. At ISST, Vishal Goyal helped in analysing the data. The fi nal responsibility for the findings and interpretation rests with the authors. This is an abbreviated version of a paper published in the International Labour Organisation Asia Pacific Working Paper Series. The responsibility for opinions expressed in this paper rests solely with the authors and publication does not constitute an endorsement by the International Labour office of the opinions expressed in it, or of any products, processes or geographical designations mentioned in it.

Ratna M Sudarshan ( and Shrayana Bhattacharya ( are with the Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi.

easuring women’s paid workforce participation is complicated for reasons of both perception and method, as was demonstrated in the seminal time-use study of women’s work conducted in the early 1980s by Devaki Jain and Malini Chand (Jain 1985). It is further complicated by the overwhelming predominance of informal over formal workforce participation by women in south Asia (ILO 2002). This paper seeks to throw some light on the nature of women’s workforce participation in urban Delhi, and to identify what appear to be the key factors influencing women’s decision to work, the type of work they do, the constraints they face, and the perceived benefi ts and costs of engaging in paid work outside the home.

In his essay on “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”, Partha Chatterjee suggested that a spiritual and material dichotomy had become the basis for new norms and the determination of gender roles: “The home was the principal site for expressing the spiritual quality of the national culture, and women must take the main responsibility of protecting and nurturing this quality” (Chatterjee 1989: 243). It continues to be true that Indian women play a critical role in religious rituals, maintaining kinship ties, and celebrating festivals, apart from their reproductive roles and responsibilities. An implicit social contract continues to influence the allocation of household roles and r esponsibilities. According to Banerjee (1998), women can be seen as a “flexible resource” of the household, the implication b eing, not that they are confined to private spaces or to any rigid roles, but rather that they lack the autonomy to take decisions about work.

Our survey of women in Delhi in 2006 confirms that the decision to work outside home is usually a household decision, i e, a large majority of working women did not work prior to marriage and a majority of unmarried working women stop working after marriage or after delivery of a child. What seems to emerge as a general finding is that the strongest infl uence on whether or not women work after marriage is not the individual attributes of the women, but the external environment and ideology of the marital household.

1 Background: Female Labour Force Participation

Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) suggests a decline in the overall female participation rates between 1983 and 2000 and a substantial decline in female subsidiary l abour supply. Analysts have attributed the low levels of workforce participation and decline to a mix of positive factors such as increased participation in education; cultural-aspirational

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s anctions, whereby increased prosperity and household income lead to withdrawal of female workers; and labour market disparities resulting in wage discrimination and barriers to entry into preferred jobs (Sundaram and Tendulkar 2004; Das 2006).

In both rural and urban India, on an average, workforce participation rates (WFPRs) of women from poor households are higher than those from households above the poverty line. Such data has led to the presence of what was referred to as compelling need-based participation (Sundaram and Tendulkar 2004) of women in the workforce, where it is poverty status that, ceteris paribus, drives women to greater workforce participation. In fact, this analysis further says that greater female WFPR from a particular household increases the probability of the household being below the poverty line. Hence, poverty assumes an important role in analysing women’s WFPRs.

Recent data shows that the national urban female WFPR increased to an all-time high of 16% in 2004, as a result of increased subsidiary status participation – an increase of 19% (NSSO 2005).

Data on labour force participation rate (LFPR) in Delhi suggests that the state mirrors the national labour force gap. Comparing NSSO data from 1993-94 to 2005-06, we see that the proportion of female workers per 1,000 persons has continued to decrease. The urban female LFPR for the usual status has dropped from 102 per thousand women in 1993-94 to 78 in 2005-06 as per the NSS 62nd round. Male labour force participation has increased steadily from 1993-94 to 2004-05. However, the recent 62nd round of NSS data shows a sharp decline to 506 men participating in the labour force per thousand men in urban Delhi.

This data gives rise to a number of questions. For example, is there an underestimation of women’s work in large-scale national surveys because of the nature of the participation, such as their concentration in informal or home-based activity? Data reviewing the demand for women in the labour market has highlighted the growth in opportunities in smaller, informal trades and services (GOI 2002a). Evidence from a large number of micro studies further suggests that women workers continue to be partly netted in by labour force surveys because of the nature of the work that they perform, which is often home-based, subcontracted, or through sources of self-employment. Women’s work is also embedded in domestic activity, which creates perceptions that these activities are not to be reported as “work”. Case studies confi rm the presence of urban informal employment, which is insecure, home-based, and contractual (ISST-HNSA 2006).

In addition, there are likely impacts of supply-side constraints, including women’s reproductive roles, cultural sanctions, patriarchal hierarchies and aspiration-related issues. It would be imperative to see if such demographic variables relating to household size and sex ratios play any role in determining female workforce participation. The roles played by the child-dependency ratio and the child-woman ratio need to be explored in the urban context, with the average household size being smaller and family structures changing towards becoming more nuclear. The average household size in Delhi has shrunk from 4.4 in 1999-2000 to 4.1 in 2004. The child-woman ratio in poor households is higher (relative to those in non-poor households) by about 28 percentage points. Any exploration of women’s work has to factor in the time spent on care work and the interaction between productive and reproductive responsibilities.

Other population characteristics such as age and education structures also play a significant role. A large section of the labour force in the informal economy is possibly migrant in nature (GOI 2002b) and may be undercounted. Migration and women’s work choices may be linked, as many sources of employment such as domestic work are based purely on a migrant stream of w orkers (Pathare 2000).

Another diagnosis offered for weak female workforce participation is the absence of preferred job opportunities due to gender biases (Das 2006), suggesting that poor returns from the labour market, in combination with the availability of another stable income stream through marital partners or other family members, causes women to avoid participating in the labour market.

On the demand side, increase in women’s workforce participation is linked to expansion of opportunities. Over time, the behaviour of women’s workforce participation is expected to refl ect the impact of industrial growth: Goldin’s analysis for the United States (US) suggested a long-run U-shaped pattern of female workforce participation over time. The thrust was on u rbanisation. The idea being, with accompanied demographic transition, women’s participation in the labour force, which is high in rural areas, would dip initially during the transition and eventually rise in the complete urbanised context (Goldin 1990).

Close to 94% of Delhi’s population resides in urban areas. The rural population as a percentage share of the total population has been decreasing for the past decades. Thus, the city serves as an excellent case study to probe the effects of urbanisation, if any, on workforce participation. It is the intention of this paper to attempt, through a field survey, to throw light on the level and nature of workforce participation of women in urban Delhi, and the likely role of the variables mentioned above in the observed outcomes.

2 Context: The City of Delhi

Delhi is a highly urbanised city, with a population distributed across different zones as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Population Distribution of Delhi

20.66%15.38%12.69%16.38%1.25%10.51%12.8%5.66%4.67%Delhi 2001 1,37,82,976

november 28, 2009 vol xliv no 48


While a majority of Delhi’s population resides in established colonies and regularised localities, slum and jhuggi-jhonpri (JJ, or impermanent huts) clusters account for 33.8% of the city’s population. The distribution of population across different types of settlements is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Population by Settlement Type – Delhi 2000

Sl No Type of Settlement Estimated Population Total Estimated
in 2000 (in Lakh) Population (%)
1 JJ clusters 20.72 14.80
2 Slum designated areas 26.64 19.10
3 Unauthorised colonies 7.40 5.30
4 JJ resettlement colonies 17.76 12.70
5 Rural villages 7.40 5.30
6 Regularised–unauthorised colonies 17.76 12.70
7 Urban villages 8.88 6.40
8 Planned colonies 33.08 23.70
Total 139.64 100.00

1 lakh = 0.1 million. Source: Delhi Economic Survey 2005.

The average level of income in Delhi is higher than in the rest of the country. As per government estimates, the annual per c apita income in Delhi is Rs 53,976 in 2006. Per capita income in Delhi has been on a consistent rise and far higher than the n ational per capita income. Income in Delhi is ascertained to be

2.5 times that of the Indian average per capita income (Delhi H DR 2006).

As a result of high and rising levels of income, the poverty levels in Delhi are estimated as being below all-India numbers. The population below poverty line (BPL) has been decreasing consistently in Delhi. In monetary terms, the monthly per capita poverty line was demarcated at Rs 454.11 for urban areas in 1999–2000.1 As of 2000, close to 8% of Delhi’s population lived BPL. Data available from the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) shows the income distribution of Delhi’s population and is depicted in Figure 2.

Thus, Delhi is witnessing increasing union territories. To increase accuracy and ensure adequate item response, the survey was conducted through face-to-face interviews of heads of households and members of households, using a questionnaire based approach. Non-response was reduced by conducting focus group discussions, proper training of interviewers and supervision. Proper measures (such as good survey design, well-designed survey instruments, reliable sample frame, proper implementation of fieldwork, robust data cleaning and analysis) were undertaken to minimise sampling and non-sampling errors.

Though the sample did not include slum households, in terms of income distribution, it is representative of the city of Delhi. A predominant section of the sample is drawn from the growing lower middle class of Delhi. Around 5% of the sample consists of households that are BPL.

The sampling methodology used implies that the survey results represent close to 15 million persons living in Delhi. The current population of Delhi is estimated to be close to 15.3 million people.2 As per the 2001 data, 45% of Delhi’s urban population is female. The sample canvassed by the ISST includes 48% female and 52% male share of the population. It draws from the entire geographical expanse of Delhi from the north-most location in Narela to the extreme south in Mahipalpur and Mehram Nagar. While concentrated in planned colonies and regularised areas, a few JJ resettlement colonies near Bawana have also been included.

A few areas in south and south-west Delhi could not be covered in the ISST survey due to the restrictions imposed by residents for entry into colonies and apartment complex areas around the time period of the study. Investigators reported immense difficulty in tracing female respondents and canvassing questionnaires due to safety concerns women in Delhi face and urban work-life patterns. In certain settlement colonies, families had migrated due to the insecurity surrounding tenure and possibility of demolition. Other such areas reported problems

in household identification as the pat-

Figure 2: Distribution of Population by Income in Delhi

population, rising incomes, and rapid tern of addresses had undergone


u rbanisation. It is against this backdrop

that this study is placed.

3 Sample and Methodology

A household survey was carried out in

Population (thousand)

Delhi during a three-month period be


tween September and November 2006. The sample canvassed is a subset of a

Source: NCAER (2002).

larger sample surveyed by the NCAER in 2005. A multistage stratified sampling scheme was adopted at the NCAER to generate representative samples. Sample districts, villages, and households form the first, second, and third stages, respectively, for the selection of the rural sample, while cities/ towns, urban blocks and households are the three stages of selection for the urban sample. The sample size and its distribution were determined on the basis of the accuracy required and the resources available. Approximately, a sample of 63,000 households out of the preliminary listed sample of 4,40,000 households was spread over 1,976 villages (250 districts) and 2,255 urban wards (342 towns), covering 64 NSSO regions in 24 states and

1995-96 2001-02

changes. Thus, from the target 600

households, 447 were canvassed across the 58 blocks listed for the sample.


Questionnaires were canvassed to fe

male respondents from varying back

grounds to get an improved understand

ing of women’s decision to join the work

force. Students from Delhi University and

volunteers from the ISST community centre were trained for the purpose of the survey. Various concepts surrounding the informal economy and difficulties in measuring women’s work were elaborated upon and, while the defi nition of work and activity status remain similar to the NSS design and usual status definition, more signifi cance was placed on probing and acquiring a sharper insight into household work-life arrangements. Field investigators were asked to additionally note some comments based on respondents’ reactions to questions and fi eld observations during interviews.

Data has been obtained through the survey conducted by the ISST on a number of variables, including income and poverty

Less 2-5 10.20 50 Income Classes

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s tatus, migration status, education status, age, fertility and household size, and aspirations and cultural perceptions. The influence of each of these on women’s decisions regarding work is discussed in the following sections.

4 Key Findings: Women’s Workforce Participation Rates

As per primary activity status, the survey reports 21% female workforce participation. Female labour force participation is registered at 24%. The corresponding estimates for men are 84% and 87%. These numbers are considerably higher than the NSSO estimates for Delhi. The main reason for the difference might be the extensive probing, use of female investigators, and the inclusion of all paid economic activities as “work”.3 Another key cause could be the inclusion and extensive focus on home-based, piece rate work and discussions with investigators on the varied forms of work in which women participate.

During the survey, investigators reported a few cases in which

immense probing was required to discover the nature of women’s work and earning status. The problems surrounding the percep

tion of work appeared significant in areas, where women did not

consider their unpaid assistance in family run shops or businesses

as work. In a few particular cases, women did not want to divulge the working details of other female members in the family, suggesting tensions regarding female activity status. Around 15% of the respondents had withdrawn from the labour force.

4.1 Age

As per the survey, women in the age group of 21-34 years report close to 34% labour force participation rates, which slide to 17% in the 35-49 years’ age group. Increasing reproductive workload could be a reason for lower participation in later years; alternatively, this may also indicate a higher propensity to work amongst the younger generation.

A comparison with the latest NSSO data for the urban female population in Delhi suggests a similar picture, with the greatest chunk of women who join the workforce being from the postmarital age group. However, the NSS data highlights women in the 35-49 years’ age group as

work histories, with only 15% reporting having engaged in work earlier. Figure 3 shows the difference in the LFPRs of married and unmarried women.

4.3 Education

Education emerges as a significant variable infl uencing women’s labour force participation. As per the survey results, women’s decision to work is mediated by the level at which their labour choice operates. Women with no schooling report higher labour force participation than women who have completed schooling. Graduate women show 5% higher labour force participation than the non-schooled group, among which the labour force participation rate is estimated to be close to 32%. Close to half the women who are educated above graduation do join the workforce. This section reports a 49% labour force participation rate (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Education Specific Female Labour Force Participation

LFPR 50 40 30 20 10 0 49 32 15 27 10
Illiterate No schooling but Schooling Graduation Above
can sign name Graduation
4.4 Income

From the survey data, the effect of household income on women’s workforce participation is not as clear as that of education. The highest participation levels are seen among the BPL households and the highest earning households, followed by the middle i ncome range (annual household incomes of Rs 3.30-3.85 lakh), which reported 42% working women.

There is a strong relationship between income level and the e ducation expenditure that a household can incur and this could explain the relatively higher LFPR among the upper income classes.

Data on poverty status was

Figure 3: Specific Female Labour Force Participation by Marital Status

reporting the highest working 45

also available and it is interestpopulation ratio in urban 40

ing to note that the LFPR for

dramatically between 1993-94 30

Delhi. As per the survey,

43 19 29
cantly higher for BPL families

Delhi. This share has increased men and women is signifi


and 2004-05. While 18.4% of than the average calculated for



women between the ages of 35


and 49 years were working in around 50% of women from



1993-94, this share increased

these families are part of the

to 48% in 2004-05. 5 workforce. This is a different


picture to the one presented by


4.2 Marital Status

Marital status has a strong connection with LFPR. The survey shows that unmarried women in the 18-60 years’ age group report 43% labour force participation rates. This is much higher than the national average, the Delhi average, and the urban area average. While it is difficult to assume that these women will stop working or withdraw from the workforce after marriage, the current segment of married non-working women report marginal

Married Divorced/separated

the NSS, according to which the female urban workforce participation is the highest in the upper most monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) class as per the 61st and 62nd round (NSS 2006), and the weakest amongst the lowest MPCE category. This difference from NSS findings can be attributed to training investigators to probe for informal forms of work, taken up by women from poor households.

november 28, 2009 vol xliv no 48



Labour force participation remains the same, with none registered as unemployed. The LFPR for men from BPL families is 92%, with 61% of 18-60 year olds being engaged in regular or salaried work. While male WFPRs are roughly similar across income ranges, female WFPRs are seen to marginally change within m iddle income ranges and to increase dramatically in poor households.

5 Activity Status and Informality

Overall, as per activity status descriptions received through the survey, a far greater number of male members of households are engaged in paid work, while a majority 51% of the women in the sample describe themselves as housewives. Table 2 summarises the findings of the survey relating to the activity status of men and women.

Table 2: Activity Status of Sample (%) Activity Status Men Women The activity status reported is similar to the
Self-employed 28 4 NSS data, which also
Salaried 31 14 highlights domestic du
Home-based workers 2 2 ties as the most signifi -
Casual labour 2 1 cant activity for women
Unpaid family labour 0 1 in urban Delhi, with
Unemployed 3 2 56.8% women reporting
Housewife/stay at home male 1 51 this category. It should
Student 25 22 be noted that “salaried”
Retired Others Total 6 2 100 1 2 100 does not imply working in formal or organised
enterprises; rather, it

implies a regular job with monthly payments and some degree of assurance regarding the continuation of work (for example, working as a shop assistant on a regular basis). Of the women who are working, only 28% said they were entitled to provident fund cover and 38% had access to paid leave. The implication is that even when they are reported as “salaried”, most women form part of the informal workforce without access to any assured s ocial security. This is an elaboration of the results from the 2005 Delhi Economic Census, which throws light on the degree of informality in Delhi and its employment and entrepreneurial landscape. The data suggests that only 2.5% of enterprises in urban Delhi employ 10 or more workers.4

6 Contrasting Working and Non-Working Women

A glance at the work and life histories gathered through the survey data can enable us to further comprehend the context within which work-life choices are made by women in Delhi. The predominant role played by care work, safety concerns and the environmental construct created by the household emerges from a comparison between working and non-working women, which is given below.

In terms of demography, there are more similarities than contrasts between working and non-working women. This is true of household size – five for both groups, and marital status – 18% of working and 13% of non-working group were unmarried. The a verage age of working women in the sample is 36, while the a verage age of non-working women is 39. The average age of non-working women, although marginally higher, does not

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s uggest a generational shift in terms of working patterns. However, age-specific workforce participation rates show that women from younger post-marital age groups5 possess a greater proclivity to join the workforce than their older counterparts.

Investigators also found greater willingness among younger female respondents to discuss working patterns and aspirations. To quote one non-working respondent who has a 22-year old daughter: “These days, girls work and we do not interfere. Times have changed and they had to. As long as she is happy and well.”

The distribution of working and non-working women across various educational categories suggests that differences in working decisions and labour market gains become signifi cant only for those who have pursued education above graduation. While 17% of the working women in the sample report possessing education above graduation, majority of working women (41%) have completed schooling. Majority share of non-working women also report completing schooling, while only 6% of this group reports studying above graduation. This fi nding strengthens the argument for greater stress on female access to higher education for genuine labour market returns to accrue within an urban context.

An important finding while exploring linkages between education and entry into the labour force is the amelioration of anxiety and insecurity in dealing with the world of work and the “outside” associated with lower levels of education. The following quote makes it clear: “Women who study more have seen the world. What have we seen – our home, parents, and school? Those women are better able to deal with working. I shall be u nable to do so.”

While similar proportions of women who are working and non-working are married and the average household size is the same, the role of the marital household is signifi cant in terms of domestic democracy and household care arrangements. The next section elaborates on the roles played by reproductive workload and marriage.

7 Marriage and Reproductive Work Burden

“When you marry, you can do anything your husband permits.”6

A large section of women in both the working and non-working groups are married – 82% of working women and 87% of nonworking women. Around 47% of all respondents stated that they had quit work after marriage and childbirth.

Contrary to perception, marital status does not impose a direct bar on women’s access to a working life. Rather, marital status and its associated reproductive roles mediate this access and the nature of work-life arrangements. Only 31% of the working respondents had worked prior to marriage. This means that for a good 69% of working women, the decision to work follows, and does not precede, marriage. Around 60% of the working respondents had worked prior to childbirth, implying that as much as 40% of working women decide to work only after getting married and having a child.

In the non-working respondent pool, 16% had worked before marriage, and 11% had worked prior to childbirth. From the segment that said they had worked prior to childbirth, 60% stopped working after the birth of their child. Similarly, amongst the

non-working respondents who worked prior to marriage, 57% her working patterns and engagement in unpaid economic work,
stopped work after marriage. These numbers suggest the role she highlighted the significance of perceptions surrounding
played by the childcare workload in determining the nature of household roles in deciphering “work”:
the female labour market supply. You asked me what I did and I said I am a housewife. What work do I
Around 53% of the working respondents felt that working do other than taking care of the family? Now you ask me what work I
women should stop working when their children are young. This do in a day and I tell you that I clean his shop… does that make much
section supported the idea of women rejoining the workforce difference… I am at home and that’s all I do.
a fter their children reached a certain age. Some 54% of the work- Amongst non-working respondents, the fact that children and
ing respondent pool also felt that working interfered with duties housework need more time was cited by a majority of 34% as the
such as childcare. key reason for stopping work. This was followed by illness, which
Amidst the non-working women, only 20% seek employment was reported by 13% of the section. Two causes tied as the third
once again. The key decision to quit work appears to be volun most cited for leaving work: migration and low earnings. It is in
tary, based on the current familial context. Some 68.5% of our teresting to note that within the group of women who withdrew
respondents who left working said they themselves took the deci from the workforce, none worked as casual labourers. The major
sion to not work any more. Around 12% of the respondents said sector from which withdrawal was observed is the regular sala
their spouse had asked them to stop working. Most accounts of ried workforce. A further break-up of respondents who have
withdrawal stress the role played by household work. A common withdrawn from the workforce will provide more insights.
response in the survey was “household work became too much” when investigators tried to explore the reasons for withdrawal. 8 Perspectives and Patterns in Work
Within the 15% section of respondents who withdrew from the Care, ideology of the marital household and concerns regarding
workforce, household workload is cited as the key reason by as safety govern women’s entry and exit from the labour force.
many as 30%. Household workload is related to marital status. Around 68% of non-working women had to consult with some-
The average hours of work for working and non-working women body in their family before starting to work. Hence, they also cite
suggest the sheer difficulties they face in joining the labour force. familial objections as the key obstacle in joining the workforce.
Table 3 shows the average hours of work for working and non- For working and non-working women, one of the key hurdles
working women. cited in joining the workforce is the pre-existing workload
Table 3: Average Hours of Work r elating to household chores. In Delhi, with its high reporting of
Working women crime against women, it is not surprising to find that mobility
Average hours spent on reproductive work/household duties: Five hours and safety concerns are the second-most frequently cited hurdle
Average hours spent on paid work: Six hours for working women.
Average hours spent on unpaid economic work: Four hours (40% of total working As per usual status, close to 15% of the respondents reported
respondents said they spent time on unpaid economic work). withdrawal from the labour force. This percentage is higher for
Non-working women Average hours spent on reproductive work/household duties: Seven hours. married women. Some 23% of this section withdrew from self
employment. One recurring instance of this was of women who
Table 3 suggests a normal working day of 11-15 hours for women conducted tuitions from their natal home deciding to stop after
in the workforce. Such long hours of work and the refl ected marriage. Other instances were of women who traded in goods
d omestic responsibilities shouldered by women are a crucial vari such as clothing items, who felt no need to continue with the task
able influencing work-life choices. Thus, the higher workforce of running a business. One of our respondents in such a situation
participation rate amongst unmarried women is indicative of said: “The business was doing well and I managed on my own. It
women’s reproductive work and its significance in determining was small and had a few loyal customers, but once I moved, it
female labour supply. was too difficult to continue with such work.” Around 47% of
Within the realm of reproductive work, it is interesting to note such withdrawals took place from regular salaried work. A
that both reproductive and market-oriented work form part of f urther 22% withdrew from home-based, piece rate work.
the domestic workload that women manage. Changing work-life patterns amongst the working section of
The concept of unpaid economic work needs an elaboration at the respondent pool were registered and explored during the sur
this point. This is defi ned as any engagement with an economic vey. Labour market mobility was a key feature cited by the 59
activity for which no payment is received. A significant section of women amongst the respondents, who said that they had changed
women who cited being engaged in unpaid economic work were their working pattern in terms of occupation or place of work.
those who helped other family members in family-run enter- Amongst the respondent pool, close to 51% of the working
prises such as grocery shops or communication centres. women interviewed said they had changed their work pattern in
Some 56% of our survey respondents stated that they helped terms of their activity status or place of work in the past. It is inter
their household members in economic activities. These ranged esting to note that the primary push for such change appears to be
from cleaning the shop space to dealing with customers during the perceived “better opportunity” in the new workplace or status.
the other member’s absence. Kamini Devi, a housewife, said During the survey, 24% cite this as the key cause for change.
cleaning her husband’s electronics shop was part and parcel of The accounts of some women stress the deconstruction of this
her domestic duties. In reply to the investigators’ queries about term, not merely defining “better opportunity” in terms of i ncome
64 november 28, 2009 vol xliv no 48 Economic & Political Weekly


and monetary benefit, but also in terms of flexibility to deal with household work and reproductive responsibilities. Approximately 22% of this sample suggests that the nature of earnings, either in pure unit value and/or the frequency of payment, caused them to look for other forms of work. Finally, 17% said that household work and childcare caused them to adjust their work patterns to suit their domestic duties. Infrastructure, combined with such housework, can be seen as a key reason for 14% of the women c iting “distance from residence to place of work” as a reason to change their work pattern.

Amongst the 115 working respondents interviewed, 22% stated that they are the primary earners for their households. In many cases, employment problems associated with the male members of the family or retirement have created this situation. For the majority 78% respondents who were working, the income earned from their work was additional to a primary source of income. Only 10 women amongst the respondent pool reported increase in household tensions after they started working. However, once asked about other known families, close to half the respondents said they had heard of conflict in other families due to women working.

Worrisome signs were reported by several female investigators during the survey. One investigator witnessed wife-beating and another observed visible signs of physical abuse. The former case was that of a working woman and her unemployed husband. I ssues relating to masculinity and women’s work, though complex, have an integral role to play in the reporting and repercussions of women’s work.

In terms of perception, neglecting children and confl ict over domestic chores emerged as the two most negative aspects a ttributed to joining the workforce by both working and nonworking women. Economic security and greater experience and knowledge alongside strengthened personality were cited as the three most positive attributes of working by both working and non-working women.

9 Concluding Comments

The survey of women’s work in Delhi throws light on several issues relating to work and well-being concerns. As far as methodology is concerned, the fact that participation rates as recorded in this survey are substantially higher than those recorded by the NSSO, suggests that undercounting and perception bias can be overcome through intensive probing as was done here.

A majority of working women are part of regular salaried workers and thus their contributions are visible and perceived as contributions. Most women who work value this contribution to the household. Twenty-three per cent said the household could not survive without their income and another 42% said it would manage with some difficulty. This is an interesting pattern to follow in a context where women have historically not been viewed as economic actors within a household.

On the supply side, reproductive work and domestic roles prove to be significant variables in influencing female labour force participation. Working women spend five hours on an average per day on housework/childcare in addition to six hours on paid work; where unpaid work is also being done, this adds on another

Economic & Political Weekly

november 28, 2009 vol xliv no 48

four hours. Women who are not working spend an average of seven hours in housework and care work. The time spent on care work is high, and working women are not able to reduce their home responsibilities very much. Maintaining work-life balance is a key issue in understanding the well-being implications of women’s work. Long hours and the resultant strain cause deeper psychosocial tensions for women, which is an important dimension to explore further in terms of the repercussions of workforce participation.

In our sample, the age-specific labour force participation between 25 and 38 years is higher than at all other ages. This could be a cohort effect, indicating an upward shift in the LFPR. The LFPR for married women – 19% – is substantially below that of unmarried women at 43%. At the same time, 69% of working women did not work prior to marriage, so implicitly, the consent and encouragement of the spouse appears to be critical in the decision to work. Further, the WFPR for those with no schooling, but who could sign their name, was much higher than for the i lliterate. However, the LFPR falls with some schooling, presumably reflecting a “sanskritisation” effect. With education above graduation, there is a substantial increase.

The relation of income with LFPR is not clear. A tendency t owards an initial fall in WFPR and then increase is just discernible. The highest LFPR for women is for those from households b elow the poverty line and highest earning households, followed by those in the income range of Rs 3.30-3.85 lakh per annum. This could possibly reflect the impact of both higher levels of education, higher aspirations, and the ability to make arrangements for housework/childcare in the mother’s absence.

A key finding is that most working women do not have access to paid leave or provident fund. This refl ects the informal structures within which women work.

Looking at the perceptions as well as the data, it appears that women’s work contributes to economic security, a stronger personality, and experience and knowledge. Very few women r eported increased tensions within the household as a result of their working outside, although a much larger number stated that they were aware of such effects. But a high workload is experienced and this is a negative aspect. Apart from family objections and lack of information, mobility and safety concerns were cited by both working and non-working women as a barrier.

The fact that working and non-working women alike felt that children get neglected is more complex, suggesting the absence of acceptable alternatives for childcare. Another clear way of improving the well-being of working women does emerge: safety in movement around the city and access to safe transport. Thus, the key factors that may push up women’s workforce participation rates appear to be higher education, reduction in time spent on housework (domestic technology, water and electricity, childcare arrangements), and safety in public spaces (transport, lighting).

In an increasingly urbanising context where cash incomes are paramount, women’s work may become an integral component of future household livelihood strategies. Further, the changing tone and tenor of youthful aspirations may create a greater willingness and desire on the part of the younger female generation to join the workforce. The survey stresses that issues relating to household care arrangements and public space, which are prima-are made and explore the dominant role of family and kinship rily dealing with the external environment beyond the work structures to determine women’s work-life choices. While kinship space and labour market, emerge as key variables in unravelling studies were once described as a “nasty medicine: to be taken the complicated texture of Delhi’s female labour force. and endured in the hope that it will do some good” (Uberoi 1993: 1),

Women’s role within the household in the context of rapid to understand the nature and nurture of the f emale l abour u rbanisation is changing. The study imposes the need to under-force will require labour market analysis to i nfuse such socio

stand this changing context within which labour market d ecisions logical narratives.


1 ES%202005-06/Chpt/21.pdf

2 Chapter 3: Demographic profi le (PDF). Economic Survey of Delhi, 2005–2006, pp 17-31. Planning Department, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi. Retrieved on 21 December 2006.

3 Differences in WPR between national and micro surveys are common. For example, women’s WPR in Punjab has been variously estimated at 4.4% (1991 Census) and 28.8% (NCAER 1993). While NSS data on work participation is regarded as much more accurate than the census, intensive probing as done here would no doubt increase the positive responses.

4 Calculated from data in Table S-17(A), Row 23 on page S-63, Report on the Fifth Economic Census of Delhi, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Government of Delhi, available at

5 As per Census 2001 data, the average female age at marriage for Delhi is 19.2, which is higher than the all India average of 18.3 years.

6 Quote from Manju Kapur’s novel, Home, 2006, Random House, p 267


Banerjee, Nirmala (1998): “Household Dynamics and Women in a Changing Economy” in Maitreyi Krishnaraj, Ratna M Sudarshan and Abusaleh Shariff (ed.), Gender, Population and Development (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 245-63.

Chatterjee, Partha (1989): “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question” in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (ed.), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (New Delhi: Zubaan), pp 233-53.

Das, Maitreyi (2006): “Do Traditional Axes of Exclusion Affect Labour Market Outcomes in India?” paper presented at Institute for Human Development, Conference on Labour and Employment, 27-29 July.

Delhi, HDR (2006): Delhi Human Development Report, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

GOI (2002a): “Report of the Task Force on Targeting 10 Million Employment Opportunities Per Year”, Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi.

– (2002b): “Report of the 2nd National Commission on Labour”, Ministry of Labour, Government of India, New Delhi.

Goldin, C (1990): Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (US: Oxford University Press).

ILO (2002): “Women and Men in the Informal E conomy: A Statistical Picture”, International L abour Organisation, Geneva.

ISST-HNSA (2006): “Social Protection for Informal Home-Based Women Workers in South Asia 2004-2006”, Institute of Social Studies Trust and Home Net South Asia, New Delhi.

Jain, Devaki (1985): “The Household Trap: Report on a Field Survey of Female Activity Patterns” in Jain and Banerjee (ed.), Tyranny of the Household (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House).

NCAER (2002): “Market Information Survey of Households”, National Council of Applied Economic R esearch, Delhi.

NSSO (2005): “Employment and Unemployment Situation in India”, Report 515, Part I National Sample Survey Organisation, 61st Round, 2004-05, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.

– (2006): “Employment and Unemployment Situation in India”, Report 522, National Sample Survey Organisation, 62nd Round, 2005-2006, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.

Pathare, S (2000): “Domestic Workers in Delhi: An Overview” in Contemporary Social Work (Farnham Surrey, UK: A shgate Publishing) 17.

Srivastava, R and R Singh (2005): “Economic Reforms and Agricultural Wages in India”, Indian Journal of Labour Economics (New Delhi: Indian Society of Labour Economics), Vol 48, No 2, April-June, pp 407-23.

Sundaram, K and S Tendulkar (2004): “The Poor in the Indian Labour Force in the 1990s”, Working Paper No 128, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, Delhi.

Uberoi, P (1993): Family Kinship and Marriage in I ndia, OUP, Introduction , p 1.

October 31, 2009
The Law, Gender and Women – Kalpana Kannabiran
‘Nonconformity Incarnate’: Women with Disabilities, ‘Gendered’ Law and the
Problem of Recognition – M Pavan Kumar, S E Anuradha
Indian Muslim Women, Politics of Muslim Personal Law and Struggle for Life with Dignity and Justice – Razia Patel
Bringing Rights Home: Review of the Campaign for a Law on Domestic Violence – Indira Jaising
Conjugality, Property, Morality and Maintenance – Flavia Agnes
Women, Forestspaces and the Law: Transgressing the Boundaries – Sagari R Ramdas
Women’s Land Rights in South Asia: Struggles and Diverse Contexts – Meera Velayudhan
Outside the Realm of Protective Labour Legislation: Saga of Unpaid Labour in India – Padmini Swaminathan
Judicial Meanderings in Patriarchal Thickets: Litigating Sex Discrimination in India – Kalpana Kannabiran
For copies write to:
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Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

november 28, 2009 vol xliv no 48

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