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The meaning of work

The fact that ‘working’ is as fluid a concept as gender needs to be focused in policymaking. This is because ‘work’ cannot be segregated in binary terms — priva­te/public

Sanhita Chatterjee Published 25.04.24, 07:39 AM
Melinda Gates: Problematic idea.

Melinda Gates: Problematic idea. Sourced by the Telegraph.

What is the meaning of ‘being at work’? In a literal sense, ‘being at work’ entails performing a task through physical or mental effort. In policy terms, ‘work’ is the performance of labour that is measurable in terms of the value generated in return for doing the task.

In a social sense, though, ‘work’ is rooted in the idea of binary gender roles. We have seen outdoor signboards proclaiming ‘Men at work’. Apart from the assumption that ‘work’ is usually done by men, these signages also signify that the notion of work is intrinsically tied to activity performed in a public space. Thus, the term, ‘work’, normatively translates into an activity that is usually performed outside the home.


It is imperative to revisit this normative concept of ‘work’ as discourses on gender, be they on social media or in conferences and lectures, continue to use ‘working women’ to signify women who are engaged in the paid workforce. This implies that being engaged in paid work is akin to ‘working’. In fact, the way the discourses on women’s empowerment has developed globally, this normative concept of ‘work’ has been further reinforced through the frequent use of the phrase, ‘working women’. In 2022, when the former US First Lady, Michelle Obama, held a panel discussion on empowering girls, one of the panellists, Melinda Gates, used the term, “working woman”, to signify a woman engaged in paid work. There was thus a complicit understanding between the audience and the speakers about the meaning of ‘working women’. This notion of ‘work’ is so dominant that attempts to interrogate the meaning of ‘working women’ are rare. We have been preconditioned to spot no difference in relating one’s gender with the production of labour in terms of its added financial value.

What is problematic about these assumptions is that they not only devalue the work performed by human beings who do not identify as heterosexuals but also the fact that such ‘work’ only happens once you step out in public. Working at home is, thus, rendered invisible. This, in turn, introduces other asymmetries: working outside home is privileged, considered valuable, is made visible and is thus accountable.

In India, discussions on the notion of the private elude policy conversations as well as the domain of society. For instance, the law related to the granting of equal rights to inheritance of property to Hindu women came into being less than 20 years ago. When ‘work’ continues to be associated with the public sphere only, it devalues the labour put in by generations of women. Why is work that leads to the provision of food, a bed to rest, a clean washroom to get ready for ‘work’, not considered as ‘work’?

The controversial remark by N.R. Narayana Murthy in favour of a 70-hour workweek also stems from the assumption that work is that which adds value to a company. Thus, it is evident that the manner in which ‘work’ has been conceptualised is insular and patriarchal. This is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, such a constricted understanding of work often leads to women dropping out of the workforce or the exploitation and underpayment of those who work in domestic/private spaces.

The fact that ‘working’ is as fluid a concept as gender needs to be focused in policymaking. This is because ‘work’ cannot be segregated in binary terms — priva­te/public. Binary segregation of work might make policymaking less challenging or make conversations more comfortable but it won’t result in any meaningful change until and unless policy and society acknowledge invisible/private labour as ‘work’.

Sanhita Chatterjee specialises in gender and communication

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