The importance of social norms in determining women’s employment


The issue of low and declining women’s workforce participation has loomed large for the Indian economy for several years now. The explanations for this phenomenon have varied, largely as a result of the huge heterogeneity across the country, not just in terms of women’s employment outcomes, but also the multiplicity of factors that potentially contribute to women’s employment outcomes. In the State of Working India 2023 report, we examine a few of these.

A working mother-in-law is associated with a higher likelihood of a working daughter-in-law

The decision about whether a woman should work is often not made by herself but rather in conjunction with household members taking into account social norms and mobility and other constraints. We estimated a simple relation between women’s employment and her own attributes as well as household characteristics including her husband’s earnings and the presence of a mother-in-law.

Among the sample of married women, we compare across women coresiding with an employed mother-in-law (MIL), or residing with an MIL who is not employed, and those not coresiding with the MIL. We find that compared to married women who do not live with their MIL, the presence of an MIL who was employed herself is associated with a higher likelihood of the woman being employed. On the other hand, if the MIL is present but not employed, this is associated with a lower likelihood of the woman being employed. This may be a result of both norms effect and income effect, i.e. low-income households require additional earnings mandating all adults (men and women) to participate in employment, and norms around women’s employment may be looser when another senior female member is also employed.

Husband’s income has a varying effect in rural and urban areas

We also look at the effect of husband’s earnings on the probability of women’s employment for rural (a) and urban (b) areas (controlling for age, education, region, state and other factors). An increase in husband’s earnings is associated with a declining probability of the wife being employed in both rural and urban areas. The fall slows but does not reverse in rural India, while for urban areas, there is a clear U-shaped pattern. This implies that in urban areas, as husband’s earnings increase, there is initially a fall in women’s employment; however from approximately ₨ 40,000 per month onwards, there is an increased likelihood of wives being employed. There may be multiple factors at play here. First, men with higher incomes may also be married to women with higher levels of education who are more likely to be employed both because they have more opportunities as well as access to paid work. Second, norms may also change along the income spectrum and mobility and other restrictions may be more relaxed for women in these households.

Intrastate variation in progressive and regressive norms

Data from the economic census shows a huge variation in share of women employed per 100 hired workers not just among but also within states. Women’s employment varies with specific local factors coming into play such as norms, labour demand, and public infrastructure operating in a district.

Autonomy and women’s employment

We use National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data to ask if progressive norms enable higher participation of married women in paid employment. NFHS collects information on women’s role in decision-making within the household, their ownership of assets, experience and justification of domestic violence, and the level of their husband’s control over them in terms of meeting friends, family, whereabouts, and handling money. We construct indicators of district-level norms to capture to what extent a district adheres to certain norms. As the value of the norms index approaches 1, the more progressive a district is in a particular dimension. In the case of justification and experience of violence, and husband’s control, higher numbers imply not experiencing such behaviours and beliefs.

We find that if a woman resides in a district with relatively more progressive norms regarding mobility, decision-making, and ownership of assets, she is more likely to be employed. Interestingly, we find that districts where norms are less progressive by indicators of incidence and women’s justification of partner violence and the extent to which husbands seek to control their wives, are also districts where women are more likely to be employed. It implies that in these districts, working women either face violence at home or tend to justify it. This is in line with the “male backlash effect” that has been observed by other researchers as well.

Our results emphasise the role of norms on the supply side in determining women’s employment. While a demand side approach that increases opportunities for women’s paid employment may bring women back to employment, supply side constraints may continue to impede their entry into the workforce.

(Rosa Abraham is faculty and R Vijayamba is post-doctoral research fellow at Azim Premji University. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University. )

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