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Workplace as sanctuary – how women deal with precariousness in their lives

Research by Dr Kamini Gupta, Lecturer in International Business & Comparative Management, explores the role that work outside the home can play in enabling women to address precarity in their lives.

Working with Dr Humaira Chowdhury of the King’s India Institute, she has interviewed more than 50 women working in the production of shawls and carpets in Kashmir. The interviews explored the different factors that constrain and enable women’s work choices, as well as how they use work to address different challenges in their lives.

The team also spoke with firm-owners, project co-ordinators, and government officials involved with schemes supporting the manufacture of carpets and other handicrafts in the valley.

Explains Dr Gupta; ‘we found that low-income women in this region experienced different forms of precarity. Family lives are often economically precarious, especially if they are reliant on only one income. There is also the issue of physical precarity; women can be concerned for their own physical safety or that of their family.” Decades of conflict in the region have also led to mental stress and feelings of emotional precarity. For women, the ability to make social connections and enjoy leisure time is constrained by the prevailing gender norms that restrict their movement outside the house.

The women said that employment in carpet and shawl weaving centres enabled them to address and manage these different forms of precariousness. As well as income, it gave them a socially acceptable and safe way to socialise outside the home; meeting their friends at work or going on a picnic together. It could be a sanctuary from their home lives, as well as providing learning opportunities and a sense of accomplishment from their work.

The advantages of working outside the home could also be very physical and practical: “if I am sick, then they take me to the doctor and help me,” said one interviewee.

Finally, the location of the workplace was also important; the weaving centres are within the women’s own communities. This allows the women to balance work with other responsibilities and to continue to work during periods when road closures restrict their movements. A larger factory, drawing on workers from a wider area, may not offer the same advantages.

Understanding the deeper benefits of work

Increasing women’s labour force participation in India could enable more women to improve their economic and personal circumstances. Currently, only 28% of women participate in the labour force in India, compared with 34% in Saudi Arabia, 61% in China, and 71% in the UK. According to a World Bank estimate in 2018, increasing women’s labour force participation to just 50% could enable India to boost its GDP growth by 1.5%.

While traditionally the focus for policymakers has been on increasing wages and social security for women in order to encourage them to work, the team emphasise the importance of a workplace outside the home to help women find meaning in employment beyond the financial benefits.

They argue that policymakers ought to also consider these additional, deeper meanings of work when designing policies to encourage women’s labour force participation.

The labour exploitation of women from low income households in the Global South is an enormous issue, but women are already using their own agency in creative ways to get what they need and want out of work. Policymakers should take time to understand those wants and needs, and businesses should involve their women employees in designing roles and practices that work for everyone. – Dr Kamini Gupta

In this story

Kamini Gupta

Kamini Gupta

Lecturer in International Business & Comparative Management (ICBM)

Humaira Chowdhury

Humaira Chowdhury

Research Associate

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