Gender Wage Gap

India is a very curious country, its societal structure functions primarily through very particular hierarchies. Hierarchies of class, caste, religion. Hierarchies of Gender. The question of how exactly wage is allocated is a complicated one, the answer, laying square in the middle of the intersection of these hierarchies, surprises very few. The market pays different ‘kinds’ of workers according to their opportunity cost, something that is determined by their own earning options. Division of land, education, and other resources stratify access to different opportunities. Socially othered communities, especially women, are paid the worst wages because of a society that supports a system of differential advantages with respect to access to education and other resources that aid in the development of human capital, something revered by the market when it comes to allocation of occupation and wage. And that’s why the Gender Wage Gap exists, right? A select few are given the privilege of education, the privilege to choose the kind of work they do, free of stigma. These select ‘few’ are also immensely dismissive of disparities in wage and work, branding it a myth – non-existent, the stuff of ‘radical feminists’ concocted in a cauldron of lies. Well, the cold fact of the matter is that women in India earn a solid 19% less than men, on average. A more intensive analysis of the structural indicators of this inequality exposes many causes and factors that go into this wide and varied socio-economic reality.

In the first place, occupational preferences of women sway towards jobs that don’t pay a whole lot, the female labour force participation was a mere 26% in 2018 (compared to 78.6% of men), with 95% (195 million) women employed in the unorganized sector or in unpaid work. 

The informal sector is widely associated with lower real wages, deplorable living conditions, exponential seasonality of employment, lack of social security measures, absence of worker rights (Re: UP with Yogi’s masterstroke), blatant disrespect of minimum wage laws,and is, in addition, largely composed of those belonging to scheduled castes and tribes, sections of society that have been historically oppressed. Workers are trapped in an exploitative cycle of oppression where a poor human capital base and inability to mobilize limits their bargaining power w.r.t. wages and working conditions. Women in low income families are required to contribute economically in order to survive on top of being responsible for household duties, chores, and other family work designated to them according to conventional gender roles. These positions of disadvantage are usually a consequence of, and further reinforced, by an individual’s social identity, rural location and, primarily, lack of education. In a paradigm segregated by economic inequality, and majorly functioning through hierarchies, women barely constitute a collective with shared interest and needs. They are stratified, as all groups are, by massive differences in material resources via the options available to them, and by traditions of work appropriate with reference to status, closely linked with their class and caste locations. Issues like unionization, subsidized food rations, and lean-season jobs that are urgent to the outcaste and tribal landless women would meet with indifference, if not hostility. 

A very interesting observation when it comes to studying the participation of women in the workforce is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between economic wellbeing and workforce involvement, women tend to terminate their participation as their households economic situation improves, very possibly due to the concrete social archetype of ‘women staying at home while the men going out to work’; a hypothesis supported by the fact that married women are more likely to not work – single women without children have the social freedom to do so, single women with children work out of economics necessity – due to marital ‘responsibilities’ and societal norms (Rohini Pande et al, in their 2017 paper “Women and Work in India: Descriptive Evidence and a Review of Potential Policies”) . As the graph shown below indicates, women move towards agriculture, manufacturing (especially food and textile manufacturing), in addition to education and retail within the service sector. This occupation preference is indicative of traditional bias where women are encouraged to seek employment in domains that are culturally considered to be more aligned with what’s expected of them. In India, women account for an approximate, mere 17 percent of senior management. 

There are several factors behind this including lack of agency, lack of women-friendly employer policies, and lack of employable skills, societal norms and traditions – which in themselves are dictated by caste, and class, based factors. Caste plays a very significant role in determining mobility amongst women and their participating in the labour workforce, with lower caste women working being deemed socially acceptable while those from higher castes face greater restrictions. In the face of ‘Sanskritization’ – an attempt to follow a more brahaminical way of life – women from families belonging to middle and lower castes with improved social standing also tend to prefer to stay at home; the more the woman is isolated, the greater is the prestige for the family.  

Being the complex phenomenon that the wage gap is, it’s obvious that several factors work in cohesion to ensure its continued existence. While preference is certainly very important, looking at things through an educational lens, especially through two categories – choice of college major and level of education, helps us understand it better. Perhaps something that ought to convince us of education as an influencing variable in the gender wage gap is the fact that women major in fields that lead to jobs that are simply not rewarded with higher incomes. Engineering, Computer Science graduates tend to earn a higher wage than those employed in Education or the Liberal/ Arts. Admission to STEM courses requires students to appear for competitive exams, which besides being problematic in itself, also makes apparent prevalent systemic biases that are perhaps best highlighted by those within the system itself; Timothy A. Gonsalves, the director of IIT Mandi was quoted in an IndianExpress article saying, “The core problem is that females do not tend to get training in attempting a competitive exam as parents are reluctant to send their daughters to a coaching institute far from home or which has late hours of studying. The technique to attempt a competitive exam is different than that of board exams, it requires more of risk-taking abilities. Going by traditional standards, girls are not only asked to perform household chores but are also trained to be more thorough with their approach as compared to boys which make them guess answers less, take lesser risks and hence result in poorer performance in competitive exams.”. Sumeet Agarwal, nodal officer for JEE Advanced female helpline at IIT-Delhi, along the same lines, said, “The rate of female candidates joining IITs was lower than 10 per cent before introducing the supernumerary seats. Even till date, we get calls enquiring about branches of science which are better for girls. Parents not only feel hesitant in sending their daughters to far-off campuses but also think that some branches of science are not suited for women. They would rather have their ward enrolled in a college in their vicinity than at a non-metro IIT”. The University space is no different even for those who do manage to overcome the hurdles placed before them. It is blatantly gendered and does little to ameliorate it, quite the opposite in fact; women are constantly put in their ‘place’, dragged for their choice of degree and subsequent career. Perhaps we ought to question why this hierarchical nature of wage structure has come to develop on the basis of discipline in the first place. Could it be because professions predominantly associated with men are given more opulent rewards than those that are associated with women? Very possible, considering female labour has never particularly been looked at as something of value, it has never been assigned a monetary tag, never been considered worthy enough of one in the first place. 

Coming to the vertical dimension of gender segregation with respect to education, the number of degrees attained, we see something rather peculiar going on; there seems to be an almost U-shaped correlation between level of education and labour workforce participation. Which is odd, right? One would assume that higher education would lead to a more enthusiastic participation, that’s what most theories of labour capital seem to suggest anyway. There are several socio-economic phenomena that are responsible for this, a curious concoction of structural and normative ideas; restrictive gender norms (specifically those attributing higher social status to stay-at-home women and wives), the highlighting of domestic duties and child-rearing in a highly competitive system of education, and the lack of work ‘suitable’ for women being a few such explanations. Caste too plays a huge role in whether education is made accessible to women, perhaps one of the reasons behind why there is a high labour force participation among illiterate women is the fact that a very large number of them belong to lower castes – which would make sense when cooped with trends that signify that lower caste people continue to constitute a large portion of the economically underprivileged, forcing women to work for survival, as against the poverty ratio of 22% at all India level in 2012, only 9 percent of high caste are poor, and the poverty increases as we go down in caste hierarchy to lower middle caste, OBC with 20% to 30% for SC located at bottom of caste gradation (Thorat, 2018). Similarly, a decline in participation with more education may be a result from a high concentration of upper castes among educated women, in 2014 about 78% of students entered secondary/higher secondary, and 27%in higher education at the India level. The rate is high for high caste followed by OBC and SC in that graded order. The enrolment rate at higher secondary level is 97% for high caste, followed by 80% for OBC and 73% for SC. Similarly, the enrolment rate for higher education is 43% for high caste, followed by 29% for OBC and 20% for SC (Thorat, 2018) 

It is thus important to maintain discourse and continue to initiate conversation about this very prevalent phenomena. It is also immensely crucial that we recognise that it does not affect everyone the same way and that the degrees of oppression can only be understood, if at all, through an intersectional lens, with an acknowledgement of the problem being one of the system. While strides forward have been made, they are insufficient, both with respect to quality and quantity. Perhaps policy isn’t the way to go. Which begs the question, what is? With increasing calls for abolition around the globe, maybe it is time to finally look at it as a real possibility, to educate, agitate and organise, and not a pipe dream impossible to achieve. And while this could be an entire piece (and more) by itself, I’m currently writing with borrowed words. But fret not (or do? I suppose?), this isn’t the last you’ll hear from me, I’ll be back, you can count on it. 

  • Ateen Das 


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