Intersectionality of gender and caste in women’s participation in the labour force

This paper is a comprehensive exploration of gender and caste dynamics in India’s labour market that delves deep into the challenges faced by women in the workplace, particularly those from the lower castes

Updated - January 23, 2024 10:53 am IST

Published - January 23, 2024 10:30 am IST

Tribal women farmer are seen at a vegetable agricultural field as they are busy in the field preparation works before plant vegetable saplings in Nabarangapur district’s Raighar area in south Odisha.

Tribal women farmer are seen at a vegetable agricultural field as they are busy in the field preparation works before plant vegetable saplings in Nabarangapur district’s Raighar area in south Odisha. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Kadam, Ashay and Sarkar, Kingshuk, ‘The Role of Gender and Caste in Accessing Livelihood Opportunities in India’, Vol 58, Issue no. 51, Economic and Political Weekly, December 23, 2023

Over the past two decades, there has been a significant decline in female Labour Force Participation (LFP), in line with an overall reduction in labour force engagement. Structural rigidities in India’s manufacturing and service sectors have restricted employment opportunities in the informal sector, where a substantial 90% of the workforce is involved. When compounded with gender bias and caste discrimination, women often find themselves situated at the bottom of the labour pyramid, which limits their employment choices primarily to the agricultural or the informal sector.

While many papers have discussed and traced the decline in female LFP in the country, through the lens of caste, the results of the studies have been conflicting. Many scholars have discussed the importance of education for women to access employment. It is women from higher castes, due to their economic condition, that have historically had a higher chance to access education, translating into better employment. There have also been studies that reveal how women from lower castes opted for public sector jobs, due to reservation. On the other hand, many scholars have also pointed out how women from the upper castes have the lowest work participation rates, with female LFP increasing as we go down the caste hierarchy. This has been attributed to economic instability among the lower castes, which pushes women into the labour market.

The methodology

Ashay Kadam and Kingshuk Sarkar extend these arguments to look at how women’s participation in the rural informal sector changes according to their caste positions. Further, the paper explores whether women from lower castes have higher participation in informal activities in depressed labour market conditions which offer limited social mobility to women in any given scenario.

Data from the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 is utilised to scrutinise and analyse the labour force participation at the tehsil level in selected States including Bihar, Haryana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

The paper attempts to understand what influences women’s involvement in revenue-generating non-farm economic activities within the informal sector at the tehsil level. It considers variables such as the interplay between high income and the percentage of female-headed households, and low income and the proportion of lower caste households to do so. To elaborate, the authors, through an in-depth analysis, elucidate that women’s LFP in the rural informal economy tends to rise under two primary conditions in the seven States. Firstly, when there is a higher number of lower caste households, and secondly, when there is a high prevalence of female-headed households. However, it is important to note a caveat in the latter scenario: the increased participation occurs predominantly when the female-headed households are economically disadvantaged.

This is because higher economic stability within households decreases the likelihood of women, even in female-headed families, to seek employment.

The caste and gender bias

In terms of gender, there are many barriers that women face in attempting to contribute to the economic activities of society. Societal expectations from women to primarily focus on housework and care work and manage the needs of a household, mostly prevent them from participating in the workforce. On the other side, women also face legal and economic constraints in their pursuit of employment. For instance, there are laws in many companies that prevent women from working on the night shift.

In the non-farm, informal sector that this paper focuses on, such laws do not hinder women from participating in the workforce. The authors explain that the lack of patriarchal figures in female-headed households and the need for revenue help women attain employment, even if it is in the informal sector. Despite strong social and patriarchal constraints that discriminate against women even in the informal economy, from the labour market perspective, participation of women in the informal sector is more desirable than the lack of any employment or unpaid domestic work.

In the case of lower-caste households, higher female LFP in the informal sector is explained through economic constraints and limitations in social mobility. Historically, people from the lower castes have been expected to engage in manual and domestic work irrespective of their gender. While men were expected to do heavy manual labour, women helped with domestic work in higher caste households. Thus, lower-caste women’s participation in the workforce is explained through the caste structure itself.

While there is a clear caste pattern when it comes to the employment of women, where women from upper castes have lower work participation rates compared to women from the lower castes, education also plays an important role in determining the nature of work accessed by women. Lower-caste women often face economic disadvantages, resulting in a higher share of them being illiterate. Limited educational opportunities confine them to jobs in the informal sector. However, if a woman from this background manages to pursue education beyond school, affirmative action policies from the state enable entry into the formal economy, particularly in the public sector.

Conversely, educated women from higher castes, who challenge societal norms, have greater prospects in the formal sector.

In any case, irrespective of whether it is the informal or formal economy, women’s participation in the labour force is beneficial for them and the larger society. Studies show that a woman’s ability to create revenue increases her capacity to make decisions for her and her family.

Moreover, education and employment are directly associated with a delayed age of marriage and the age of the first childbirth among women. Studies have also shown that when the mother is earning, the chances of a child’s schooling are higher. Further, when women have control over resources, they are less susceptible to domestic violence and enjoy more mobility.

Thus, the authors explain how despite obstacles rooted in caste and gender bias, women’s participation in the workforce has a favourable influence on the socio-economic fabric of society. It not only liberates women from societal and economic constraints but also contributes to shaping a more educated and enlightened future. The paper is a comprehensive exploration of gender and caste dynamics in India’s labour market that delves deep into the challenges faced by women, particularly from lower castes.

These insights contribute to the previous studies that have helped in creating more inclusive policies, addressing gender and caste disparities in the Indian workforce.

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