Confronting Gender Inequality and Pay Gap in India's Workforce

Confronting Gender Inequality and Gender Pay Gap in India’s Workforce

From Daily Wages to Academia: Tracing India's Persistent Gender Pay Gap and Gender Inequality Across Sectors - Voices of Women Reveal a Deep-Rooted Issue
First Published: Dec 26,2023 11:22PM
by Sagnik Majumder & Khushi Jaiswal
Gender inequality

Bimla, a 50-year-old daily wage labourer from Noida, has been working in construction for the past 18 years. Despite her hard work, she faces a significant pay disparity compared to her male colleagues. “At the construction sites, I carry heavy loads on my head and climb up to four floors,” Bimla shares. “Yet, despite doing the same work, I earn only 400 rupees a day, while men receive 700 rupees. This issue isn’t just mine; many women experience this unfair wage gap.”

Bimla | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Birwati, a 60-year-old daily wage labourer with 23 years of experience, highlights the multifaceted challenges women face in the labour sector. “Pay disparity is just one of the many issues. We’re often not the preferred choice for daily wage jobs, with men getting priority and women seen as liabilities,” she explains. Birwati’s says this is a deeper systemic issue, where even securing employment is a significant hurdle for many women.

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Describing the wage and gender inequality, she says, “We women earn about 400 rupees for the same work that earns men 500 or more. But what can we do? Speaking up risks our livelihood. When we’ve asked for equal pay, we’re bluntly told to go work elsewhere if we want fairness. So, we stopped asking.” 


Manasi Pradhan, author and women’s rights activist speaks to The Probe’s Khushi Jaiswal

The stories of Vimala and Birwati are a stark representation of the numerous challenges faced by women labourers. These difficulties go beyond just wage disparities; they encompass systemic issues of gender bias and gender inequality in the workforce. Women in such positions often find themselves in a precarious situation where speaking out against unfair practices could lead to the loss of their already limited job opportunities. As a result, they are compelled to accept lower wages and unequal treatment as a trade-off for job security.

We also caught up with Rajkali, another daily wage worker. Her experience further underscores the pervasive issue of gender-based wage disparity in the labour sector. Having worked for 20 years at a construction site in Noida, she echoes the sentiments of many women labourers who feel voiceless and underrepresented. “We receive less pay than men, but we’re left with no choice but to accept it silently,” Rajkali states. “There’s a lack of advocacy for us, and while this problem is widespread among women workers, we’re compelled to remain quiet. Raising our voices or causing any disruption risks our jobs, and we can’t afford that, especially when we have families and children to support.”

Birwati | daily wage worker
Birwati | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Rajkumari’s experience, mirroring that of Rajkali, adds another layer to the narrative of gender-based wage discrimination. Despite working for 15 years at a construction site, she too faces the issue of receiving lesser pay compared to her male counterparts. Her response to the discrimination is rooted in practicality and the circumstances of her life. “When we have travelled such long distances to find work, we can’t afford to fight,” Rajkumari explains.

Often many women like her travel from remote or rural areas to urban centres in search of work, and this displacement adds to their vulnerability. Challenging unfair practices becomes even more daunting when considering the risks involved, including the potential loss of their hard-earned livelihood.

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This cycle of gender inequality and discrimination is not confined to the daily wage sector alone. It is a widespread issue that transcends occupational boundaries. Women across various professional fields, including science, journalism, education, and others, face similar challenges. This systemic issue indicates a broader pattern of inequality that permeates different levels of the workforce, regardless of the sector or the societal class of the workers involved.

In the realm of science, for example, female scientists often report facing barriers to advancement and recognition, in addition to pay gaps. This disparity is not only in terms of salaries but also in access to resources, research opportunities, and visibility in their fields. Similarly, in journalism, women reporters and editors frequently encounter a glass ceiling, with fewer opportunities to hold higher positions or to be paid equally as their male counterparts for similar roles.

Education, a sector often dominated by women at the entry-level, also exhibits this trend. Female educators, particularly in higher education and administrative roles, report wage gaps and underrepresentation in senior positions. This is compounded by issues like unequal distribution of funding for research and a lack of mentorship or support networks, which are crucial for professional growth.

We spoke to Dr. Indumathi D, a particle physicist and professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai, who has been a pivotal figure in the Indian Neutrino Observatory (INO) project since its inception. She shares her insights on gender dynamics within the scientific community. “A critical issue in science is the stark underrepresentation of women at the outset. It’s not just about discrimination faced by women once they’re part of the field; it’s more about the rarity of finding women in senior positions. The real question is, where is the discrimination when women are scarcely entering the field? When I was pursuing my MSc, our class had more women than men, yet to my knowledge, none of my female classmates pursued a career in research. This pattern hasn’t changed over the past 40 years, which I find deeply concerning. In my view, the challenges faced by women in science are predominantly social in nature.”

A scientist working at a laboratory A scientist working at a laboratory | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Prof. S. Krishnaswamy, retired Senior Professor at the School of Biotechnology, Madurai Kamaraj University, echoes the sentiments expressed by Dr. Indumati on the gender disparities in the academic and scientific fields. He explains, “The problem for women begins right at the entry level. In the Plus 2 level, we see a large number of female students. However, their numbers dwindle in undergraduate courses, decrease further in postgraduate studies, become acutely low in Ph.D. research programs, and are abysmally low in faculty positions. I have observed instances where a woman with more postdoctoral experience than her male counterpart is overlooked for the position she deserves. This discrepancy extends to promotions as well; often, men are promoted over equally qualified women. I’ve witnessed these cases firsthand.” 

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Prof. Krishnaswamy also highlights the issue of gender inequality and bias in recognition and opportunities within the scientific community. “This cycle of discrimination is evident in the awarding of accolades too. For instance, the last Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award, which has since been discontinued, did not include any women recipients. Moreover, in many academic meetings and conferences, there’s a prevailing ‘boys’ network’. Women are frequently excluded, with justifications like travel concerns, but often, there’s not even an attempt to invite them. This exclusion is a significant barrier that needs addressing.”

Manasi Pradhan, a women’s rights activist and author, has made significant contributions to the cause of gender equality. As the founder of OYSS Women, her early efforts were focused on empowering young girls through education and nurturing them into future societal leaders. Reflecting on the issue of gender inequality and the gender pay gap, Manasi expresses her concerns. “It’s deeply troubling and equally disheartening that the issues of gender inequality and the gender pay gap have been persistently overlooked in our country for decades. I recently returned from a 15-day tour of rural areas, and the conditions there are appalling. Women in villages labour tirelessly, both at home and in the fields, often engaging in physically demanding work. Despite their hard work, they are excluded from decision-making processes. They are relegated to the kitchen and perceived merely as child bearers. This mindset starkly contrasts with urban areas, where at least the conversation about gender equality is happening, albeit slowly.”

Senior journalist Neelam Jeena, who serves as a Special Correspondent at Dainik Sandhya Jyoti Darpan, highlights the acute gender discrimination prevalent in the media sector, a reality she has personally experienced in her career. “The extent of gender discrimination in the media industry is profoundly shocking,” she remarks. “I have faced such bias myself. In one instance, I was overlooked for the position of bureau chief in favour of a junior male colleague in one of the organisations I worked for. This kind of discrimination is rampant in journalism. Despite frequently reporting on gender equality, we must ask ourselves: how many women in our field actually rise to the positions of editors or bureau chiefs? The disparity is not limited to job roles and promotions; it extends to pay as well. Female journalists are consistently paid less than their male counterparts.”

Gender inequalityGender inequality | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Jeena further elaborates on the root of the problem in the media industry, emphasising the cultural aspects that perpetuate gender discrimination. “A significant part of the issue is the reluctance of many men in the industry to accept women in leadership roles. There’s a deeply ingrained culture of discrimination that has been perpetuated for years. Men often show resistance to reporting to women bosses, reflecting a broader societal attitude that undervalues women’s leadership capabilities and contributions,” she explains.

The Indian Constitution firmly enshrines the principle of gender equality in its mandate, ensuring equal pay for equal work for both men and women under Articles 39(d) and 42. Additionally, it explicitly prohibits gender-based discrimination under Articles 15(1) and 15(2). However, the stark reality of the situation in India is highlighted by the World Inequality Report 2022, which reveals a significant income disparity: men earn 82 percent of the labour income while women earn just 18 percent. This gap is further underscored by India’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2022, where it stands at 135th out of 146 countries, indicating a major challenge in bridging the gender pay gap.

This grave disparity has profound implications for women, impacting not just their economic independence and security, but also their status and empowerment within society. When women earn significantly less than men, it reinforces gender stereotypes, limits their access to resources and opportunities, and diminishes their voice in both the household and the public sphere. This economic gap can lead to a cycle of poverty and reduced social mobility for women, particularly affecting their ability to invest in their own education and health, as well as that of their children.

For years, the issue of gender inequality and gender pay gap has remained a glaring yet unaddressed anomaly in the country’s pursuit of equality and development. Government after government has fallen short in implementing effective measures to bridge this gap, often relegating it to the background in policy agendas. This inaction not only undermines the constitutional promises of equality but also hampers the nation’s progress by failing to harness the full potential of its female workforce.

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