Representative file image. | Photo credit: V. Ganesan
The Economic Survey (ES) 2022-23 should be given credit for acknowledging that official statistics may not have adequately captured the true nature of women’s work in India. This inadequacy affects both how we perceive women’s economic contributions and the policies we develop to improve women’s economic participation.
The Economic Survey identified three sources of measurement error: (1) the use of very broad categories that associate productive economic activity with unpaid domestic work (as in NSS activity code 93, or National Sample Survey, employment surveys); (2) ask ad hoc questions without probing to categorize women’s work; and (3) ignoring economic labor that contributes to household well-being. The economic study further recommends revising labor force surveys (e.g. the Periodic Labor Force Survey) to align them with the methodologies recommended by the International Labor Organization (ILO), listing a predefined set of activities, in order to eliminate under-declaration.
A clearer picture
This attention to improving the measurement of women’s labor market activities is welcome. The National Council for Research in Applied Economics (NCAER) National Data Innovation Center conducted an experiment in 2019 under the Delhi Metropolitan Area Study (DMAS) in the National Capital Region of Delhi. The experiment compared a single questionnaire following the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) method of enumerating usual primary and subsidiary employment status. These questions were followed by more detailed questions. In the latter case, respondents were asked about their engagement in a predefined and exhaustive set of activities, as well as the time spent in each of these activities. The results of the DMAS survey indicated an underestimation of women’s work by five percentage points according to the list of activities method including work on the family farm/rented land, self-employment and daily salaried work. The underestimation was about 16 percentage points if livestock care is included. This was mainly due to the rural area estimates, where the underestimation was 34 percentage points, but only 2 percentage points in urban areas. Note that these comparisons are for the same women, allowing us to obtain accurate estimates of measurement error.
Although it is difficult to generalize based on the urban and rural areas surrounding Delhi, these findings highlight deep-rooted challenges in measuring women’s work. Interviewers as well as respondents tend to overlook women’s work, especially work in family businesses. Our field visit observations suggest that while male farmers see themselves as employed in agriculture, female farmers view agricultural activities as mere extensions of their household chores.
From a policy perspective, ignoring measurement errors may lead to focusing on the declining labor force participation rate (LFPR) of low-educated women, while the focus should be on middle-educated women. , as noted in a study by Esha Chatterjee, Sonalde Desai, and Reeve Vanneman (2019), which shows that occupational gender segregation as well as lack of demand for moderately educated women may have contributed to low LFPR. Indian women with average education are less likely to opt for manual labor on family farms or in wage labor, but at the same time remain excluded from semi-skilled non-manual jobs such as bus driving or construction work. masonry as well as some white collar jobs like sales. This has implications for targeting training programs for women in non-traditional sectors. Measurement issues also have implications for the design of social protection measures, with the undercount of economically active women translating into less budgetary allocation for informal workers.
While the Economic Survey is to be commended for its recommendations to improve the measurement of women’s work, its proposal to broaden the definition of what counts as employment is somewhat ingenious. The 2019 Time Use Survey shows that women often engage in a variety of activities that can be categorized as “expense reducing”. This includes collecting firewood, fetching water, and preparing atta from wheat to reduce purchasing costs. This also includes tutoring children and cooking. The Economic Survey suggests that we should recognize this ‘work’ with ’employment’ and collect this information through redesigned surveys.
Proceed with caution
Politically, it is quite attractive and consistent with a stream of feminist activism. Broadening the definition of work immediately increases the number of working women – including almost all of India’s adult female population – and lessens the stigma of India’s low female labor force participation rates. It also ties in with feminist advocacy that has sought recognition of women’s unpaid work. However, this approach has two flaws. First, it confuses activities inside and outside the production boundary of the System of National Accounts (SNA) where production for own use of goods such as growing vegetables or tending livestock is considered as being in the realm of production, while tutoring children is generally considered outside the realm of production. production limit. Second, activities undertaken due to a lack of infrastructure are suddenly seen as valuable rather than categorized as “domestic chores”. Women’s participation in these activities (eg fetching firewood) may be necessary for household survival, but few women would choose to cook with wood if they can easily access gas stoves. Our research has shown that women’s engagement in wage labor encourages households to abandon these domestic chores and invest in time-saving infrastructure, such as LPG cylinders.
Perhaps this is why the 19th International Conference of Labor Statisticians (ICLS) in 2013 recommended that labor force surveys capture data on a variety of activities such as the production of goods and services for own use, paid or profit-making work, unpaid trainee work and voluntary activities, but counts as employment only the production of goods and services for pay or profit.
By valuing women’s diverse activities, we can treat their vulnerabilities as strengths and not recognize the lack of access to income-generating activities for women. Perhaps the most curious case of taking women’s contributions for granted is reflected in the debate sparked by an article in the Economic and political weekly, in which Arun Gupta and Jon Rhode valued the economic contributions of human milk at $2,300 million in foreign currency in 1993. This article sparked debate, leading Mina Swaminathan to argue that this instrumental approach to women’s contributions to well-being being family leads us to ignore the nutritional costs for mothers and develop a stereotype of “good” mothers who ignore the constraints in which working mothers operate.
As India aspires to achieve inclusive economic growth and provide decent working conditions for all workers in line with SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) 8, it is of utmost importance to properly measure economic activities women.
Pallavi Choudhuri is a Senior Fellow at the National Council of Applied Economics Research. Sonalde Desai is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and Professor and Center Director, NCAER-National Data Innovation Center. Views are personal