The global developmental urge to push women into paid employment is challenged in places like India where female labor force participation rates are stubbornly low and even falling. I review the literature on the explanations of and solutions for this low female work participation to conclude that a common underlying assumption in this literature is that women not working reflects only involuntary constraints on their ability to work. I suggest that the reluctance to attribute agency to non-working women stems from the consequent difficulty with reconciling respect for female agency with the belief that productive work is uniformly good for individuals and for societies, as well as from an unstated moral abhorrence of ‘laziness’. I turn to the larger literature on the future of employment, on the need for ‘universal basic income’ as economies grow, and on the place of ‘work’ in the good life to suggest some ways in which these contradictions might be eased.
Alaka Basu is a professor in the Department of Developmental Sociology at Cornell University. For six years, she was also the Director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University. She was a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation in Washington DC and has taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, the Harvard School of Public Health and Georgetown University. She has published widely in in the areas of reproductive health and family planning, gender and development, child health and mortality, and the context and politics of population policy. She served/serves on the governing boards of the Population Association of America (PAA), the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), the Population Council in New York and the Population Reference Bureau in Washington DC. She was/is the chair of the IUSSP Scientific Committee on Anthropological Demography, a member of the Committees on Reproductive Health and on Population Projections of the National Research Council at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a member of the Lancet-Guttmacher Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. She is currently on the Editorial Boards of Population and Development Review and Asian Population Studies.
Valerie Foster Githinji
Professor Alaka Basu
South Asia Program
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