The phrase ‘division of labour’ is rooted in the economic concept of productivity. It proposes dividing the production process into stages, enabling workers to focus on specific tasks to attain maximum efficiency.
Over the years, another form of ‘division of labour’ has resulted in very low rates of women’s participation in the labour force, considerable variance in rates of female labour force participation across Indian states and of course, the gender-wage gap. While both demographic and non-demographic factors influence labour participation, the key features especially with respect to women, are income and education. Among developing nations, India has one of the lowest female labour participation rate, with only 33% of India’s working-age female population currently engaged in the workforce or seeking employment. It is therefore, necessary to understand the dynamics of conventionally thought of “women-centric occupations” and men-centric occupations, and whether and how they contribute to the gender wage gap and vice versa.
Rural India shows a higher female labour participation rate than the rate in urban India, which can be explained by women working more out of necessity than free will. In urban India, despite higher levels of education, a woman staying at home contributes to a more favourable social status for a family. The International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994 held that women’s empowerment is heavily moored to their economic status in society. The dependence of a family on a woman’s contribution to household resources is directly proportional to the poverty status of the household. It should be noted that the gender differentiation in participation (and pay gap) is not so stark in rural areas, the professional sector tells a very different story.
There is hardly any literature on the gender differentiation in terms of occupation in professional India. However, trends across developing nations and even some developed countries are not very different. No doubt, biological biases play a large role in differentiating occupations – women are considered better nurses and teachers owing to their inherent maternal instinct. There are two sub-plots at play here: Presuming that a man and a woman, are equivalent in terms of aptitude, education, and so on, what would be more typical – that the female would go into a profession where the average salary is lower than the man? Or that the female would go into the same profession as the man, but choose an occupation within that profession that might provide more latitude and therefore, come with a lower salary? In a recent conversation with Claudia Goldin , the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard economics department, and who went on to serve as the President of the American Economic Association, she talks about “occupational segregation”. Nurses are largely female, doctors are disproportionately male. She points out two causes of difference of pay – one is that within the same profession, women choose occupations that pay less, and the other obvious one where even in the same occupation, women are paid less than their male counterparts. Goldin goes on to attribute the primary cause as the latter, as women are often not able to put in the same number of hours. For instance, in a law firm, handling businesses and merger transactions, clients often demand availability-at-will and travel at demand. Here, if both, a male and female lawyer with equivalent educational qualifications are working for the same client’s project, the woman lawyer, maybe a mother, or in most cases (particularly in India) has greater familial obligations than the male lawyer, may not be able to put in the hours demanded.
So, what we actually see (apart from the financial sector), is that the gender pay gap is more a result of a woman’s choice of affording flexibility in her occupation than anything else. This flexibility resides in different work, which tends to pay less. In addition to already existing hurdles, these conceptions of women and men centric roles often create a negative impact on a woman’s choice of occupation, which is why India’s female working population has seen such a high dropout rate.
The author is a talent acquisition consultant and an economist.
 IMF Working Paper, Asia and Pacific Department “Women Workers in India: Why So Few Among So Many?” Prepared by Sonali Das, Sonali Jain-Chandra, Kalpana Kochhar, and Naresh Kumar.