Research on women's works saw substantial progress in the past decades. It focused four major areas: documentation of women's activities, evaluation of their work in monetary terms, explanation of factors behind gender division of labour and its impact on status of women in the family. Credible documentation of women's participation in economic activities is problematic particularly for women belonging to farm households.
Invisibility of women's productive work is a problem, particularly in developing countries because they usually work within the household, and productive work is often overlapped with the so-called non-productive work. Definition of productive work also causes problems. While Marxists have distinguished between productive and reproductive labour, economists have conceptualised the difference between market and subsistence production and between wage and non-wage labour, and sociologists have drawn a line between work at home and outside.
When it comes to evaluation of work, neo-classical economic tradition emphasises activities undertaken to meet the demand of markets. On that count, women's work outside labour market has often been overlooked and excluded from economic analyses. In the 1960s, a series of articles known as 'New Household Economics' made a major contribution to women's research. It focuses on valuation of homework irrespective of whether it is spent on productive or reproductive work in terms of market wages, and on the role of comparative advantages and specialisation in the allocation of labour.
However, the neoclassical household economics is criticised for ignoring the influence of cultural and social institutions in determining tastes and preferences and gender division of labour, and for the assumption of unitary household with joint utility function based on altruism among household members. The institutionalism approach and different bargaining models provide a more plausible explanation of gender inequality in the household.
On the empirical side, the debate on the wages of domestic labour in 1960s and the United Nations conferences during the Decade for Women (1976-1985) popularised the concept of social reproduction. The above discourse and debate contributed to recognition of women's work in productive and social sectors. In recent years, empirical researchers tried to document the extent of women's involvement in specific tasks, and their contribution to national income. But the controversy regarding the complexity of women's work and the inter-connectedness among different types of functions remains. Some important research questions are: what are the factors that determine the allocation of women's time among different types of activities? How are these related to the status of women within the household?
The role of women's work for gender, development and poverty reduction continues to be an important area of investigation in Bangladesh. It is recognised that women work more hours than men particularly in low-income households, more in agricultural than in non-agricultural economic activities, and more as unpaid family labourers than as managers. Even if they do most of the work, men mostly control their decision-making power and ownership of household resources. Institutional services for development target only men. Even when women are targeted such as in micro-credit programme, women are often brought to the front but men keep control over managing the resources. Thus, it is acknowledged that women are a disadvantaged group to acquire knowledge on farm and non-farm production systems and technologies from service sectors. They are disadvantaged because of traditional culture and social norms that confer power and privilege on men.
However, some recent studies have observed that women from poor households change their traditional norms and responsibilities at home and are involved in post-harvest agricultural activities outside due to extreme poverty and food deficiency. A general critique of studies is that these are based on a field work in one or a few selected villages, and hence it is difficult to get a picture for different regions and the country as a whole. With a few exceptions, studies have analysed as to how the dynamics in rural Bangladesh have affected women.
We define economic activities as those that generate income for households or save household expenditure for acquisition of goods and services from the market. These include employment in agricultural and non-agricultural labour market, but also unpaid work for household in crop cultivation, homestead gardening, livestock and poultry raising, fishing, cottage industry, transport operation, construction, business, and personal services. There are many other activities done mostly by women that are quasi-economic in nature which are not valued in national income accounting. Examples are food-processing and preparation of meals for the family members; care of the child, old and sick members of the household and tutoring of children. If the household had hired workers for doing these jobs, it would have involved some expenditure. We call these activities as domestic activities.
The recent most empirics pertaining to women's participation in economic activities reveal that from 2000 to 2013, the rate of women's participation has been much faster than males. There are many reasons for this 'miracle ' to happen. Economic opportunities have opened up for women, especially in readymade garment (RMG) sector. In agriculture today, almost half of the labour force engaged is women. Women are also gradually approaching the service sector. But in terms of wages of the same scale, disparity persists and women are not chosen for higher level jobs on account of the mindset that women cannot do special types of works. The social and religious norms still act as barriers to women's participation in economic activities.
Summing up, the following are broad patterns and trends:
n There is a clear gender division of labour; women spend more hours in domestic chores and men in economic activities. The proportion of women in full-time economic activity is very small.
n In recent years, the total number of hours spent in works by both women and men has decreased but it has decreased more for women resulting in smaller working hours compared to men.
n Other changes are: men now work less on agriculture, more in non-agriculture and domestic activities whereas women work less in domestic work but more in home-based farm activities.
n The proportion of hired labour in total labour force is much smaller for women than it is for men, and it has declined at a faster rate than the male rate.
n On the whole, there have been a decline in the participation of women in market activities outside the household, a mild increase in home-based economic activities and a substantial decline in female domestic labour.
The writer, a former Professor of Jahangirnagar University, is Chair, Department of Economicsand Social Sciences, BRAC University.