Working Women Experience Phantom Incompetence and Real Injustice

“If you discourage half the population from fully participating in the labor market, you are essentially behaving like an airline pilot who shuts down half his engines in mid-flight. Sure, your plane will likely continue to fly, but it would be such a crazy thing to do,” Christine Lagarde told to The Business Standard in an interview. Lagarde who is the Director of the International Monetary Fund further quoted, “If women were to participate in the labor force to the same extent as men, national income could increase by 5 per cent in the US, 9 per cent in Japan, and 27 per cent in India.”

How does 27 percent look like? Very crudely put, if an average Indian woman stands 5 feet 2 inches tall then 27 percent of that height would roughly translate to an increase of 1.3 feet. This means, visually an Indian woman’s progress (hence the nation’s progress) would be exactly on par with that of an Indian man who has an average height of 6 feet. Interesting graphical reference, isn’t it?


Lagarde, while speaking to The Business Standard, touched a raw nerve (particularly for the Indian context) when she said that (currently) women are more likely to be employed in informal sector and even if they do work in the formal sector, it is for lesser pay. Renana Jhabvala wrote a paper over a decade ago, in which she spoke of informal sector in India, “All self-employed workers belong to this category, as do all landless laborers, marginal and small farmers, petty traders, mine workers, casual laborers, domestic workers, bidi makers and street vendors. The contribution of this sector to the economy is often grossly under-counted and under-rated; especially when at an all India level, the unorganized sector accounts for 93 percent of the total workforce.” Statistically, things might not have changed much over the decade. Things only change when the privileged male segment of the population are affected. Here we are talking about women who neither have the education nor the access to improve their lives. If almost all the Indian women are still working in the informal sector, undoubtedly there is a large population segment which would be dealing with insecurity of working in the complicated maze that informal sector is. Another sardonic reality is that the current Sexual Harassment at Workplace law is not equipped to deal with the informal sector. As Jhabvala had said over 10 years ago, “From the perspective of labor, the term ‘unorganized sector’ broadly refers to informal arrangements of work including home-based, casual and self-employed workers, also temporary, part-time workers and micro-entrepreneurs. The main defining characteristic of the unorganized sector is the precarious nature of the work in which employment is not permanent and workers are not covered by adequate social security. There is usually no clear employee-employer relationship.” Growing up in Indian metros, I have seen informal sector women working at the construction site (often with clung children), working as domestic help, and helping family in their household enterprise etc.

As a woman, I have always worked in formal set-ups and have observed the social phenomena of women being relegated to corners by men. It took a long time for me to process it because unlike informal sector; the formal sector oppression is extremely insidious and deceptive. For a long time, I was denying its existence because everyone in the formal setup is educated and belong to a privileged socio-economic category. Only when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s article, “Gender Bias and the Fight for Equal Pay”, my observations seem to be making sense. The dots join. Sandberg says and I am sure many of you will agree, “Men are considered to be more competent than women, especially in domains traditionally seen as “masculine.” We see these beliefs reflected in men and women’s assessments of their own capabilities: Men tend to overestimate how they will perform and women tend to underestimate how they will perform. This same social pattern influences salary expectations. A 2011 survey showed that long before they even hit the workforce, teenage girls expect lower starting pay than teenage boys. Because we link salary with competence, not only do women often have lower salary expectations for themselves, but others expect to pay them less as well.”


If informal sector has witnessed blatant human rights violation of women then formal sector systematically punctures women’s progress. If Sexual Harassment at Workplace has been a poorly implemented Indian law which also happens to be inadequate for informal sector; then there also have been institutional salvagers in the form of loans for women. In India, currently, there are 7 state sponsored loans which can help women overcome the triple disadvantages (gender, disability and violence).

It seems as though everything is a haze. There are holograms for concrete systems and their implementation. Every time we report gender based discrimination, there will be one Smart Alec who will cite the laws and loans we have in place for women. The answer to women’s elusive progress is in empowering individuals and creating accountable systems which has periodic check-points. Everyone and everything needs to be watched over and monitored.

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