July 9, 2011 Roundtable: Dr. Padmini Swaminathan, “Women and Work: An Indian Saga”


Photos from the July 9, 2011 Roundtable. Report will be posted soon!






Women and Work: An Indian Saga


Dr. Padmini Swaminathan

Rapporteur: Reva Yunus



9th July 2011


Knowledge House, 6, Kasturi Rangan Street, Chennai


Dr Padmini Swamnathan is one ofIndia’s leading gender economists, and a hard-core industrial economist turned gender economist at that. She retired as Professor from the Madras Institute of Development Studies; and has worked and written extensively on industrial organization, labour and employment, occupational health, and education & skill development, all from a gender perspective. (See http://www.mids.ac.in/padminis.htm, for more information)


She obtained her doctorate in Industrial Economics from theBombayUniversity; her journey into a gendered perspective on economics is also a comment on Indian higher education in Economics. The perspectives given prominence in higher education here are Western, not Asian – American systems and economic perspectives are taught instead of, say Japanese, which though not completely like Indian, can be a educationally more useful in the Indian context. As latter parts of her narrative underscored, policies and problem definition have also been regularly borrowed from the West, instead of promoting research in the Indian context and basing policy prescriptions on that research. In the same context it is also important to remember that mostly doctoral studies do not allow students much freedom to focus on what really interests them or seems important to them.


After obtaining her PhD, Prof Padmini’s first research study involved looking at the patterns of shareholding and inheritance in the two-wheeler manufacturing giant, TVS inIndia. What she found was that shares could only be inherited by sons – males of the male line, not even males of the female line. And further, that if sons broke away from social conventions too they stood to lose their shares – so gender was not the only stratification which was important and formed the basis of discrimination– categories of caste and religion were also important. For example, one son was disinherited when he married a Christian girl.


She went on to stress that gender issues and inequality have mostly been treated as if they have nothing to do with economics – and are instead purely social or family issues. Even the Companies Act, 1956 was amended more to keep the money in the family than out of any concern for gender equality or daughters’ rights.


Incidentally, this Act which discusses/defines various types of wages for the Indian work force– is premised on recognition of only a particular kind of family structure and gender relations; the family where the male is the primary earner and the woman only supplements this income of the male earner. These assumptions were never tested against reality, no empirical evidence was sought to prove/disprove that only such gender/family-relationships and structures existed – only age-old conceptions which did not take into account changes in household structures, national economy, etc. If such conception of job trends and home-economics was borrowed from the West, so was the solution – namely, ratifying and adopting the Equal Remuneration Convention of the ILO. The concept was not the problem, but the assumption that it alone would be sufficient to ensure income-equality for women, ignoring social structures and prevalent gender ideology were definitely problematic. Prof Padmini points out – that inequality was now maintained albeit through a very different mechanism – invoking written and unwritten laws distributing jobs more or less rigidly among men and women.


There was also the Science and Technology Report which ostensibly sought to protect the ‘woman’s womb’ clearly prioritizing women’s reproductive role in society and family above her own financial independence and economic contribution to the family. But there are two questions – one was it scientifically verified that certain jobs did affect women’s reproductive health and more importantly, why wasn’t it ever considered necessary to worry about what jobs affected, say, the semen count in men?


Next she talked about the question of minimum wages; when we ask for these to be paid what is our basis for assuming that it is indeed sufficient? To underscore the importance of this question she pointed out a very powerful but mostly unnoticed fact – that though the prevalence of unemployment is lowered, that of poverty isn’t! How come people have jobs and are still poor? Shouldn’t we also be asking if the minimum wages would actually push people above the poverty line??


She also pointed out the fallacy in the commonly accepted/offered argument – that, we have good policy but bad implementation. But there are questions we should ask before we subscribe to this explanation of what’s wrong in the social-political-economic situation inIndia. How much are our policies based on what research tells us? And, can a policy which doesn’t have means and imperatives for effective implementation built into it, be called ‘good policy’ in the first place? E.g. – those subsectors of the unorganized sector which are categorized under the Factories Act, were found to be violating the provisions of the Act in Tamil Nadu as there weren’t enough Deputy Factory Inspectors to ensure regular inspections and implementation of the Act! Another barrier to faulty formulation & implementation of policy is the complexity of our bureaucracy, and the compartmentalization of responsibility – for ex look at the MDMS –


Accepting that an economist is not a public administrator, she argued that it is nevertheless of utmost importance they too know all aspects of the issue at hand and policy-implementation, and understand how policy is practiced.


Moving on to the impact of assumptions underlying definitions of data to be collected, and of the data itself on policy-making, she discussed the example of data regarding women and work done by them. 54% of women report being housewives – but that does not mean that they are not doing anything to augment/generate income for the family. It is only now that the National Sample Survey and the Census of India are beginning to collect data on such done by girls and women; for example, regarding household utilities like firewood, water, and so on. Then there is the category of what economists call ‘unpaid productive work’, for example, pottery – women end up doing most of the work before and after a piece is actually created on the potter’s wheel. However, the most disturbing fact about this unpaid productive work is that the number of women occupied in this work and the number of hrs they devote to it, have actually gone up in the last decade! In the face of all the talk about gender-just policies, women’s empowerment, increasing enrolment of girl in school, and so on.


What we urgently need is to focus on acknowledging the need for research – both in terms of actual numbers and in terms of facts of the everyday realities of different groups of women. Whether policy prescriptions actually take into account their real problems and constraints and attempt to address attitudes and practices; as well as whether measures taken in the name of development and empowerment have desired effects or not. Much that is being done under the current development paradigm is actually further weakening women’s positions and adding to their burden if we look at women in the most marginalized sections of society.


In fact, she argues that the no of people being covered by legislation to protect their incomes, job security/dignity are actually going down.


Discussion, Q & A


  1. One participant remarked that the session had made her realize that she had always equated ‘work’ with ‘employment’ in her head – but they really may not be the same always, and it was such a significant difference!
  2. Vocabulary is such an important aspect of public life – so it was that we did not just accept some terms and meanings as existing in public domain, but try and understand where they originated and what interests they serve or oppose.


Prof. Padmini replies that in deciphering data interrogating definitions and assumptions, is necessary, e.g., infrastructure in the context of SEZs only includes benefits for employers, like built land, subsidized electricity or water, not employee benefits like canteens or a creche.


Equally important are the social-political perspectives of those doing the deciphering – who and what they question, hold responsible, what do they prioritize? For example, if 84% of eligible women do not access benefits under Maternity Welfare schemes, is it something in the Act (provision or implementation) that makes it inaccessible or is the women who for some reason not choosing to access it?


  1. Another participant wanted to know more about the kinds of Maternity benefits available to women in various kinds of jobs.
  2. Third question was whether it safety of female employees was held as the company’s responsibility, particularly, if women choose to work night shifts etc?


Employers inIndiaare not held responsible, generally not even prosecuted as there is not proper definition of responsibility, no standard provisions, procedures etc. companies might be getting female employees to sign contracts which absolve the employers of all responsibility in this regard, but there is not legislative measure against it.


Then there was some discussion on women’s struggle to be allowed to work night shifts – either out of need or due to its relation to chances of promotions, etc.; also on the various forms of exploitation and discrimination encountered on jobs. For example, in the new textile units, a large no of employees are local girls and women in Tamil Nadu, but they get only a part of their wages and the rest is kept (as leverage against their quitting) to be given when they get married! Another experience of a young girl working with mercury (hazardous substance, used in clinical thermometers) was even worse –as there are generally no women guards and supervisors for women working night shifts, girls find it difficult to approach guards etc with personal or health problems – this girl’s periods (what term do we use in this report??) began after she came on duty but she didn’t fancy going to the male guard asking for help, and instead chose to use the cotton cap given to protect their heads from the mercury dust, as an impromptu sanitary napkin – leading, understandably, to all manner of health problems!







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s