Norms about whether women should undertake paid work

Norms about the overall acceptability of women engaging in paid work are strongly related to three other connected sets of norms: the acceptability of work in specific- sectors and activities; respectability and mobility; and norms concerning care responsibilities and domestic divisions of labour. I first present evidence of the broader norms and values, and then discuss each of these connected sets of norms in turn.

Data from a 2017 study conducted by Gallup and the ILO found that, globally, most men and women support women undertaking paid work, either as a sole responsibility or, more commonly, combined with taking care of the home and family. The one exception was North Africa, where more men (but not more women) preferred women to only take care of their families. This study found that family attitudes were a key influence—in households that do not consider it acceptable for women to work outside the home, 61% of women said that they preferred to stay at home. Men and women with university-level education and people in families without children were most supportive of women’s paid work (Gallup and ILO 2017).

GrOW-supported studies from both East Africa and South Asia found considerable ambivalence toward women working for pay. Focus group participants in Uganda interviewed as part of a study on early labour market transitions reported strong male reservations about women working outside the home (Ahaibwe, Ssewanyana, and Kasirye 2018a). These reservations reflect fears that women may engage in sexual liaisons or may be sexually exploited by bosses, as well as the possibility that women earning their own money would be less subservient. They also express an underlying norm of married men’s entitlement to their wives’ time and labour:

Men feel very insecure. It takes some years in marriage for a man to trust you to work. (Female focus group participant, Masaka)

How do you donate your wife to another man to work for him? (Male focus group participant, Namayingo)

Economically empowered women are big-headed, they often divorce. (Male focus group participant, Namayingo)

(all cited in Ahaibwe, Ssewanyana, and Kasirye 2018a: 22)

Although conflict-related disruption can lead to women adopting new roles and norms changing to reflect common patterns of behaviour (Petesch 2013), GrOW- supported research on barriers to WEE in post-conflict northern Sri Lanka indicated little normative change.A massive 82% of women in male-headed households said that household responsibilities were a barrier to wage work, and 42% reported family attitudes as a barrier (Gunatilaka and Vithanagama 2018; Jeyaseker and Ganeda 2018). A smaller proportion of female-headed households cited these factors as barriers to wage work (63% and 21%, respectively), perhaps because their need for income meant they were forced to violate norms. Around 10% of women reported community-level disapproval of women working as a barrier to wage work.

Field, Glennerster, and Nazneen’s (2018) study in Bangladesh, also found considerable opposition to young women working, though this was nuanced by whether work could be undertaken at home or not. In about half the households studied, husbands and in-laws preferred young women not to work for pay at all or to undertake work they could do from home such as tailoring or tutoring. These findings are consistent with those of Heintz, Kabeer, and Mahmud (2017), who found that purdah6 norms and the desire to avoid negative judgements from other community members, strongly influenced women’s work preferences in Bangladesh. Indeed, Asadullah and Wahhaj (2016) estimated that purdah norms explained half of the male/ female difference in labour force participation in Bangladesh.

While norms deterring women’s paid work (both in general or in specific occupations, discussed in the next section) were strong, GrOW studies also found evidence of change. Research by Chopra and Zambelli (2017) on women’s paid and unpaid work in India, Nepal, Rwanda, and Tanzania explored the tension between idealised gender norms and the economic pressures many households faced. The study concluded that:

[M]en across the research sites valued their wives’ engagement in paid work for the contribution that this made to the household budget. However, most men considered this engagement as a symptom of their household’s poverty, rather than an idealized situation, and preferred that this work was either in their own fields or closer to home.

(Chopra anil Zambelli 2017: 28).

The authors also found—consistent with a long-standing qualitative and quantitative literature—that norms about women’s engagement in any paid work, or about acceptable work for women and men, were of necessity looser in households living in extreme poverty.

The GrOW-supported baseline survey for the Punjab Economic Opportunities Programme in Pakistan explored households’ willingness to send members for training. To the researchers’ surprise, they found an openness to women taking part in training, so long as it took place in or near their villages. Similarly, half the unemployed women (31% of all women in their sample) reported that they were looking for work, as were 9% of women who were already working. Again, this indicates that norms prohibiting women from working may not be as strong as assumed, particularly if the work can be done close to home (i.e. not strongly violating norms about women’s mobility) (Cheenta et al. 2017).

Qualitative research in Kagera region, Tanzania, undertaken as part of GrOW- supported research by Kamanzi and colleagues on early labour market transitions, found that norms about paid work were changing rapidly among young women, reflecting generational change:

Those days where our mothers were to ask for money from our fathers, even for simple things like underwear, are gone: we need our own money, and this means that we should work.

Now like me who has gone to school, why did I go there? To stay at home and do what? ... Do you need to go to school to remain at home? Why don’t you stay there from the word go?

(Kamanzi et al. 2017; 15)

However, parallel focus groups with young men also documented unease about women’s work outside the home, particularly in tenns of impact on family life.

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