Team GBL

Team GBL

September 22nd, 2023

What do rural women think of paid work?

Do rural women want paid work? How far are they willing to go for paid work? What do they think of flexible and formal paid employment opportunities?How do they view men’s role in household dynamics?

In this episode of What about work?, we try to find answers to these questions through the lens of the project Female Labour Supply - which is designed to provide a formal and flexible employment option for rural women.

Listen more from researchers, design researchers and field team at GBL as they share their experiences from Nimdih- stories and conversations with rural women which give a glimpse into the innovative survey design techniques employed to gain a better understanding of the project.

As we unravel more about the project’s overall design, we also try to understand whether these distinctive interventions hold a place in the market.


Anant A: Yeah, so it's hard to imagine the different ways in which workers have to balance these competing demands on their time and on their priorities and flexibility for many people, can make that much easier. You know, being able to have control of your schedule being able to go at your own pace.

Hello! And welcome to What about work? An audio series produced by Good Business Lab.

Good Business Lab seeks to globally transform the lives of low-income workers through rigorous research and evidence-based solutions.

What about work? talks about the past and current experiences of workers in labor-intensive industries and other emerging sectors from different geographies. Be it garment, automobile, fast food, platform gig work or any other.

In our last episode, we discussed the possibility of enabling rural women’s access to flexible, stable paid work. Today, we will be turning the focus on the women themselves. Can supply chains absorb their labor? Are rural women interested in such market linkages?

These are the questions GBL has set out to find answers to in the village of Nimdih. Here’s GBL Field Associate, Vasudeva Naik and Field Consultant Vivek Rana, on the small and complex village 2 hours north of Jamshedpur. They spoke to us about how the context of research often changes its logistics.

Vasu N: We are focusing only on female respondents, that's why we need more experienced surveyors. That's why we talked about their experience and what their education are completed and what was the language stays, they have

Vivek R: This area is basically a border area. So most of the people speak Bengali here so that is the reason to select Bengali surveyors.

Understanding people in their own contexts rather than imagined or imposed ones is essential.

Madhu M: I've done a ton of these qualitative interviews

(While this is playing across projects and across geographies, but this was very interesting because softly in the background)

(Narration: Senior Design Associate at GBL Madhu Manjunath, like Vasu and Vivek, was in Nimdih recently.)

We were told that they all start that day at four in the morning. Like every, every single woman we spoke to started her day at 4 a.m. And you know, their typical day would start at four where they clean up the house, they do their and maybe fetch water like feed, get some feed for the cattle or whatever and then take a bath, then make first and everything's done by eight or 8 30 in the morning. That's when the kids go to school, husbands go to work. They do engage in agriculture work, but that's only about three months in a year. The women we spoke to whose husbands worked were in the construction sector or they had a tiny vehicle that they would drive for hire. Otherwise, , there weren't, there weren't other, like, major jobs unless they were willing to travel to different cities

Waking up at 4 am every day and immediately carrying out physical labor is difficult. To some this might just seem like a timestamp but this provides insight into the life of a woman in Nimdih.For more intimate details, however, researchers have to get creative.

Madhu: personal questions. if you just ask them directly, then they would be very guarded and they might say no, like no matter what's happening at home. So we didn't want to ask them directly, which is why we went about this activity method and we did use these images as probes. So for example, our main question was what would your ideal life look like? And then they would pick one of the images and then we would be like, OK. So now that you've told us that this would be your ideal life. How different is your current life or what can you do for your current life so that it can move towards this ideal life scenario that you're showing in the image. This is how we use the probes throughout the interview. for example, the cooking one, right? They would, most of them would take the neutral measure where both the husband and wife are cooking together as their ideal life. And when you ask them if they are in anything like that, quite a few of them, they say yes. But then when you ask them to describe more about their daily life or how often the husband really helps them with cooking. It's not that often. It's maybe once a week or once a month, but that still gets mentioned that they do get that special mention there because they had that one time.

Deborah C: Yeah, I'm so glad Madhu brought this up.

Deborah Charles, Qualitative Researcher at GBL adds,

Deborah C : Like it's almost as if the bar for helping or considered like equal help on both sides was very low for men in the sense that if the men helped out once or twice, then it was considered equal partnership. But like for the women to be considered as equal partnership and things like bringing an income, they'd have to like go above and beyond in the sense that they have to do all the housework and they have to work a job outside that makes, that makes money and they have to do other things and only and still then they perceive it as equal, even though it might not actually be as equitable really objectively.

There were also other innovative survey design methods used to make entries into women’s interior lives.

Deborah C : We came up with these norm categories, which was like we had no norm neutral, norm expected and norm unexpected for a set of like nine themes. So each of these categories under each theme had one image. So for example, take the theme of Home Rules, we had three images under one, each category of norm, neutral, norm unexpected and norm expected. So under Home rules, a neutral sort of image would be both a man and a woman in the kitchen together with food around them. I mean, and the second norm expected would be the woman working in the kitchen alone while the man sits outside on the veranda. And a norm, an unexpected one would be the woman sitting outside on the veranda and the man in the kitchen cooking. So this was kind of what the activity looked like. And we had like nine themes like this under each of these three categories of norms. And we use this to ask questions to the participants.

Rural women aren’t immune to the social effects of inequalities. Their perception of their own lives can also be something to analyze.

Deborah C : women don't like to perceive that work they're doing as a work that can be paid for in that sense. Like we even kind of, we kind of tweaked one of our images to show this. Like we had three images for tailoring work like some women chatting and then the last image was women like cleaning clothes and washing clothes. And that's something that they do every single day, but not one woman considered that as something like work that can be remunerated. It was just like Oh, this is just what you have to do 

As women, we often devalue our own work. We invisiblize tasks we consider our sole responsibility. But in India, there is another dimension to this reduction of domestic work. Caste. Domestic work as paid work is caste specific. Associating household chores to payable employment would confront or remind rural women of their position in society.

Money is another aspect that respondents may have skewed perceptions about. GBL’s Senior Research Associate Madhukari Mishra briefly mentions,

Madhukari M: We asked women, what is your household's annual income? And a lot of women could not give us proper estimates. So then we realized that instead of asking them to give us the exact amount, we should actually have blocks like say 25,000 to 50,000 and things like that.

Women’s aspirations are often not aligned with our realities. What we want is not always what we get or need. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop trying.

Deborah C : And the other thing was, you know, we asked them that let's say you could earn 5 to 10,000 more than your husband. Then would you move to a new job? But would you be able to travel to this other job, which is in a nearby town that lets say a 30 minute commute every day? And they all said yes, of course. But then, when you ask, would you be able to complete all your house chores before going to work? Because if it's an office job, it would be 9 to 4, would you be able to make it? And they were all very excitedly saying yes, yes, of course, I'll make it happen. I don't care if I have to wake up even earlier than 4 a.m. But when, get them to think about it more. Ok, will you be able to sustain this in the long term? Will your husband be able to take over some of the chores from you in the short term? Everybody says that yes, my husband can cook one or two days a week. That's fine or once in a while he'll take over those childcare work. That's totally fine. But over the long term, no, like we almost have nobody who says yes, that will happen. They all said that if that's the case, then maybe I'll have to drop out of that job. It doesn't matter how much it pays.

Deborah C : Yeah, I think trying to frame it as a more long term like years down the line sort of thing is probably a far more impactful way to get them to think and talk about the decisions that they feel that they have to make. And I think it's also a function of, if you've been told, pretty much your whole life, this is something you can't do and this is something that you should do. I think the impulse is to then, be like, I'm ready to sacrifice whatever it takes. Do the thing that I've been told I can't do. But then once you sort of actually start trying to think about it, practical, placements in your life, then it becomes harder, which I guess is connected to, how we know that so many migrant women who come to work in garment factories or other places outside of their homes really only stay up until they're married. And then once they're married, they have to readjust their lives because at the end of the day that isn't entirely up to them. so I guess I feel like it's like an interesting step in the direction of how to accommodate work, to the specific needs of a woman worker as opposed to the other way around. 

Can the provision of stable home based work resolve these tensions? Can it support women in not just taking control but also altering conditions of their lives? As our last episode explored, 50 women in Nimdih are being trained in creating products from the local grass available in the region: sabai.

And now Sanchita Wadhwa, Senior Research Manager, explains GBL’s Female Labour Supply: Scaling Models of Decentralizing Production or the FLS project.

Sanchita W : So we are focusing on women between the ages of 18 to 60. So the idea is that we would randomize women into two arms. One would be that they would be allowed to work from home. And second would be, they would have to come to a workshop that is based in the village. So it wouldn't be far away. They could walk to the workshop and they could come there and work.

I want to pause here. There’s this incredible work of fiction I was reading recently by Bessie Head, a writer born in South Africa who sought asylum in Botswana during the former country’s apartheid regime. A regime that rendered Head’s own mixed racial heritage illegal. When The Rain Clouds Gather is considered her first novel. Planted firmly in the rural real, the book charts a South African refugee’s journey in eastern Botswana. There’s one part in the book that explores agricultural variation in the region. Despite the fact that millet is easier to grow in drier conditions than certain other crops, Head writes that because

Paridhi A : certain minority tribes, traditionally considered inferior, had long had a liking for millet and had always grown it as part of their season’s crop. Therefore, other tribes who considered themselves superior would not grow it or eat it.

Everything has context. Like the millet in Botswana, handicraft work carries with it a particular social connotation in India. Most of the women being trained hailed from communities who come under the purview of the Indian government’s Scheduled Castes or SC and Other Backward Classes or OBC categories.

Madhu M : In one of the interviews we were told that it's, it's a kind of job that a certain community does and why are you doing their job. 37:16 These are the kinds of comments that they faced but this was nothing that they could do but just continue on about their work. 37:28 This isn't something they didn't feel like was so bad that they had to stop doing this.

Women are used to being questioned about their decisions. And these complicated equations should all factor in how an intervention can or should run.

And now coming back to the nitty gritties of FLS.

Vivek R: Before the 15 minute mark: A total of 50 women were gonna get training. Here and 20 or six women working Welcome home. And 23. Women working from a workshop. So I'm auditing both areas.
Sanchita W : We do also want to do some sort of a sub treat if you would like to call it to see, you know, to address other social norms, that might be, that might be a barrier for women.
Vasu N: We went and we did probably 20 surveys there, and if any kind of changes, we need to change the card translation or other question here. We did that on that time after we got a list from Bangla Natak, we got a 52 candidly respondent list from Bangla Natak.

So what has the general response been from women in Nimdih?

Vasu N: Before the 20 minute mark: Very good. lot of every women's are agreed to do the job

But there have been a few roadblocks. Vasudeva tells us that those in the workshop get five days in a week to carry out the sabai work. While the ones working from home get the whole week. This means that women coming to the workshop have felt they don’t have enough time. But time has also been a concern for home-based workers. Both groups of women have personal responsibilities to compensate for. Whether they find the time throughout the day working from home or after coming back from the workshop all at once, the scarcity of time remains a challenge.

Vivek R: Kyunki pahadi ilaaka hai 

Vivek informs us that the terrain of other villages where FLS could potentially take place is hilly. That means exhausting long walks. In the context of women, who already undertake a lot of physical labor whether for the house or the fields, that also means additional burdens even if they do want to travel out to work.

Like we’ve said before, the challenges are many. But what we are interested in are possible solutions. Anant Ahuja, co-founder and CEO of Good Business Lab, who you heard at the beginning of today’s episode talking about the advantages flexible work can offer, says

Anant A : The sense that I have is through creating home based work opportunities, you're obviously potentially helping women who can't leave home for work to advance in their lives. And that can be through the maybe more obvious ways like earning salaries and being able to actually have their own incomes, whether they want to use it to sort of support the whole family or even if it's for savings. I do think being engaged in work and being able to demonstrate your capabilities and create output that is valuable can also be rewarding, and create a lot of self confidence. All these things put together, we see some really positive and encouraging stories of, what women choose to do, how they prevent a lot of issues from happening through their savings, how they're able to actually invest in really valuable,, things for the family, whether it's homes or vehicles or their children's education.

And what about the firm perspective?

Anant A: I think in a world today where there is a lot of mass manufactured products in the market in general, I would say that people do, you have an interest and desire to find things that are unique and, and, and I think just along those lines, there could be a lot of design ideas and creative output that could be best made in, you know, home based work environments. So, I, I, I'm sure brands are already doing it, but, you know, just to do it in a way that can leverage the power of this sort of supply chain, I think is, is, is what needs some thinking and some planning. And I think that, you know, that's probably a good place to start. But then there's also a lot of products that if you just sort of reimagine the production process and the supply chain, there could be advantages to doing it like that. And I think that yeah, I'm, excited to see what we can learn from, this research specifically and then how those learnings can actually be adopted by businesses and how, you know, there's obviously many challenges and maybe even risks to doing home based work You know, people are concerned about if there's a home and kids live in the home, then how do you prevent child labor and so on? And these are issues that I think we've been talking about and seeing in agriculture work and, you know, family businesses like that. So there are similar issues here. But I think maybe at some point there's going to be people who figure out how to overcome those challenges and the ones who do I think could benefit a lot in terms of, you know, having more innovative supply chains and maybe more resilient supply chains.

Maybe innovation demands us to risk what we think we know to be true. And maybe innovations that center sustainability demand a strategy different from what has come before. Supply chains could make space for home-based workers in a more formalized way. This could be transformative for women specifically, but also for their families and their communities. The impact this could create is worth investigating. FLS hopes to do just that.

Coming up next are the last two episodes of What about Work? Season 1! We will be ending this season with perhaps one of the most urgent conversations in low-income labor-intensive contexts: worker voice. See you soon! Or actually, you’ll hear me soon.

Thank you for listening to What about work?.

We always welcome constructive feedback. Have anything you want to say? Drop us a message @goodbusinesslab on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn. You can also visit our website to learn more about our approach to worker wellbeing.

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