Bina Agarwal, Prof at Manchester University, on undercounting of women in workforce

Bina Agarwal, Prof at Manchester University, on undercounting of women in workforce

Both in our Census and the NSS, biases in definitions of work and in reporting by (typically male) enumerators and respondents lead to many hardworking women being labelled as housewives.

Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment, University of Manchester Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment, University of Manchester

Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester, talks to Sarika Malhotra about Gender Challenges, her compendium of selected papers published by Oxford University Press.

BT: Women still remain neglected as farmers and undercounted workers. What are its implications?

Bina Agarwal: Almost 40 per cent of India's agricultural workers are women, and increasingly so as more men than women move to non-farm jobs. Our farm output and food security, thus, depend increasingly on women. Yet, they have little independent access to the most important productive resource - land. They also have limited access to credit, irrigation and other inputs, information on new technologies and practices, and markets. This reduces their yields and overall output.

According to FAO's 2011 State of Food and Agriculture Report, if the constraints that women farmers face could be overcome and they had the same access to inputs as men, total agricultural output in developing countries could be 2.5-4 per cent higher. This potential remains untapped because we treat rural women not as farmers in their own right but as farm wives, and provide resources and services mainly to male farmers. Even our TV programmes on agriculture are addressed to men. This neglect of women farmers is undermining our efforts to reduce poverty, improve nutritional security, and enhance agricultural growth.

There is a vibrant debate today on why Indian women's labour force participation is so low (17.5 per cent for rural adult women by the 2010/11 National Sample Survey or NSS). One major reason is the undercounting of their work. Anyone who visits a village can see women working everywhere. Quite apart from cooking and childcare, they take care of cattle, fetch firewood and fodder, keep poultry, cultivate the family fields, and much else. Yet, all this productive work remains invisible, unpaid, and largely excluded from labour force statistics.

Both in our Census and the NSS, biases in definitions of work and in reporting by (typically male) enumerators and respondents lead to many hardworking women being labelled as housewives. Admitting that women work outside the home is also seen as lowering the family's status. Recent studies note that women's participation rates are much higher if we widen the definition of work to include unpaid family work, informal sector work, and various types of extra-domestic activities (basket weaving, kitchen gardens, etc.) that women do at home.

Undercounting is not just a statistical artefact. It also affects policy. Our employment policies do not adequately recognise the constraints women face as workers due to childcare, elder care and domestic work. But even if we counted women's care work, would they be paid for it? Without earnings, women remain economically disempowered. We must recognise that India's demographic dividend lies not just in our young men but also in our young women.

BT: Many assume that women are less efficient than men and therefore can be paid less. Is this justified?

Agarwal: Quite the contrary. I found that agricultural economists were counting women's labour as equal to half of male labour, without verification. Then I came across results from an experiment done by the Punjab Agricultural University, which tested potato-digging equipment on women and men. Women took under half the time men took for the same job. This helped me justify counting male and female labour as equal. I see no justification for paying equally qualified women less than men for the same job. Indeed, if relative efficiency were actually measured, there may well be a case for paying women more than men in some contexts!

BT: You place a lot of emphasis to women's property status as the central measure of women's economic status. Why?

Agarwal: It is striking that when assessing the economic status of men or of households, we always ask about their wealth and asset ownership. Yet when assessing women's economic position, we seldom go beyond employment. In fact, we assume that women will derive their economic status from the households they are born or married into. So, we fail to ask what kinds of assets women own in their own right, and what difference that makes.

There is substantial evidence that women who own little property have limited bargaining power at home, which leads to high inequality in the division of tasks, access to resources, having a say in household decisions, and overall autonomy. Property-less women are much more vulnerable to domestic violence than those owning land or a house, even in a state like Kerala. And given that an increasing proportion of farmers are female, a lack of land ownership and related difficulties in obtaining credit and other inputs negatively affects both household food security and our country's farm productivity.

In rural India, it is also striking that while many male farmers own tractors, their wives still cook on old stoves with wood, crop waste, or dung. We are concerned about Delhi's pollution today, but indoor air pollution from cooking is lethal in our villages. Studies show that women's mortality risk from infections caused by inhaling fuel smoke from primitive cooking stoves is 50 per cent higher than men's. If women had property, they would have more say in how household income is spent. They would also be in a position to themselves invest in clean fuel and improved stoves.

Globally, many studies also find that when women own assets, their children do significantly better in terms of basic survival, education and health. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that in South Asia the best social indicators in terms of women's education, maternal and infant mortality, and sex ratios are found in Sri Lanka, where women across all religious communities have historically enjoyed strong inheritance rights in land and other property.

BT: What is the importance of including women in governance?

Agarwal: Whether it is village institutions or corporations, including women in governance is very important. It is necessary not just for equality and fair representation, but also because it would improve institutional performance, since women help enlarge the talent pool, and often bring with them a different set of capabilities than men. In fact, a growing literature points to the gains from including women on the boards of corporations.

There continues to be a debate, however, on what percentage of women will be effective, if included. Rosabeth Kanter at the Harvard Business School argued in her 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation that 40-50 per cent women would be effective while 15 per cent would only constitute a token presence. Those studying women in western legislatures mention figures between 15 per cent and 50 per cent. But there is little empirical testing for critical mass. Meanwhile, one-third has become the much-cited figure. I decided to test for critical mass in community forestry groups based on my primary data for India and Nepal. I was initially sceptical about 33 per cent being the magic figure, but I found that 25-33 per cent was indeed the critical mass. With these proportions, women were found more likely to attend meetings, speak up, and hold leadership positions.