Are women in formal sector more empowered? Revisiting empowerment

Ranjani K.Murthy
Publication Year:
September 24, 2020
  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities

Working on women's economic empowerment, I have read assertions that women in the formal sector are more empowerment than women in the informal sector. Are they? It is argued that women in formal sector have to work lesser hours, at good terms and conditions, earn well and can save, are less vulnerable to sexual harassment, have access to social protection etc. More recently it has been argued that medical disasters like COVID-19 less affect them than women in informal sector. This article is concerned with empowerment of women in middle and senior managerial level of the formal sector.

Yes these assertions may be true. Yet women in the formal sector, including middle and senior managerial level, are not automatically empowered. It is not uncommon to find that they have to hand part of their earnings to husband or take permission before sending it to their parents. Some skip promotions to look after children or to be with husband in the same city, or are forced by marital family to do so, An NGO dealing with domestic violence found that most domestic violence cases from middle and upper class are linked to economic issues.

Yet another issue is that some of the women in middle and senior level have imbibed social values - such that they give less freedom to their daughters than sons, save for their daughters dowry and wedding, do special fasts for their husbands well being, send "rakhis" (wrist bands) to their brothers seeking protection etc. That is, the social norms continue in thier thoughts without much change. These norms are not too different from what is held by women in the informal sector. Formal sector jobs, like informal sector jobs, do not enhance what Rowlands calls "power within" oneself to challenge gender norms.

A further issue is how middle and senior level formal sector job holders treat working class women and men in office and outside. In India they come from Dalit and other so called "lower" castes. Rarely will they sit or eat along with driver or domestic worker, or the sweepers in office. They may land up paying the domestic worker one tenth of salary they earn, because it is the market rate, and the drivers a bit more because they are male and the market rate higher. Weekly off is rarely given though they get one, and verbal abuse of workers/drivers is not uncommon. In worse cases, physical abuse and abrupt termination follows too.

This reinforces the point I raised in my earlier post on women's empowerment- empowerment is not a lineal process, and further empowerment entails changes in power and norms governing multiple identities which affect ones' life. Additionally, empowerment is also about how one treats others, whether one refrains from exercising "power over" others who are in a more vulnerable position that oneself- be it one's daughter, domestic worker, sweeper in office or driver. Ultimately empowerment is about social transformation, and not just transformation of one's life. As long as the debate on women's empowerment is situated at women as "victims/survivors" level it is not enough, some are both survivors and perpetrators at the same time or/and at different times. Formal sector jobs are necessary but not enough for women's empowerment. They are one of the spokes of the windmill of women's empowerment, changing gender and social norms and power relations (other spokes) of the windmill is a must. Women's empowerment cannot be delinked from issues of rights and justice.


Rowlands J. (1998) A Word of the Times, but What Does it Mean? Empowerment in the Discourse and Practice of Development. In: Afshar H. (eds) Women and Empowerment. Women’s Studies at York. Palgrave Macmillan, London.


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