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Work and Welfare: Revisiting the Linkages from a Gender Perspective

Work and Welfare: Revisiting the Linkages from a Gender Perspective
A number of key assumptions underpin most approaches to the reduction of poverty and inequality (particularly in relation to the developing world): first is the idea that market-led growth is sufficient to create employment and thus raise the incomes of families and individuals, pulling them out of poverty; second, that welfare policies (now widely termed social protection) are able to protect those in need of (short-term) assistance due to contingencies that reduce income and consumption below a basic level; and third, that the reduction of inequalities will follow from growth and poverty reduction.

A central flaw in these arguments over the translation of patterns of growth into welfare outcomes concerns their assumptions about the nature of labour markets and employment. Several premises can be questioned: (i) around the nature of work (whether paid or unpaid), and the structure and functioning of labour markets; (ii) the relationship between paid and unpaid work, and between the productive and reproductive economies; and (iii) the links between work and welfare, in particular, whether welfare entitlements are linked to or separate from employment.

A particular set of insights into these relationships comes when analysed through the lens of gender, which is the perspective adopted in this paper. The different roles of men and women in paid/unpaid work provide an obvious entry point for re-examining arguments about the relationship between work and welfare. Given a gendered division of labour and the gendered nature of institutional arrangements that differentially structure the access of men and women to different opportunities and resources (including employment) in any particular context, labour market outcomes are likely to vary between men and women. Under these circumstances, different labour markets and/or social policies are likely to generate different outcomes for men and women, with implications for welfare outcomes.

Assuming or encouraging women’s entry into paid work as a basis for welfare improvements and entitlements has implications for: (i) the functioning of labour markets themselves as the supply of labour shifts relative to demand; (ii) the relationship between the reproductive and productive economies (when the former rely heavily on women’s unpaid labour); and (iii) access to welfare, with the risk that employment-based hierarchies and exclusions become replicated and accentuated in social policy. Alternatively, delinking welfare from work creates its own challenges. At a macro level, a particular concern is how to finance welfare programmes if not through high levels of employment; at a micro level, if unpaid work is not valued as “proper” work with adequate compensation and strong entitlements, those undertaking such work (currently predominantly women) are at risk of depending on poorly funded and marginalized components of the welfare system.

This paper examines the relationship between employment and social policy specifically from a gender perspective. It first lays out, in section 1, the conceptual ground, drawing on a range of heterodox economic and feminist analyses to suggest alternative ways of understanding institutions and labour markets as gendered structures. Indeed, the empirical evidence reviewed in section 2, in terms of the persistence of gender hierarchies within both paid (in terms of earnings/wages) and unpaid work (in terms of time), despite significant “masculinization” of women’s working lives (that is, their increasing participation in the labour force), does not fit comfortably within the predictions of standard labour market models. Gendered stratifications are also evident within the welfare system, where entitlements are linked to paid employment (social insurance) and ability to pay provide stronger claims to welfare, compared to needs-based (social assistance) entitlements delinked from employment.

Given the gendered structures and processes that limit women’s formal employment opportunities and weaken their labour force attachment, and in turn compromise their access to social security and protection, section 3 goes on to explore relationships and interactions between work, employment and social policies. The concluding section draws out some of the policy implications from the preceding analysis for more gender-egalitarian policy agendas. It also connects the gendered analysis of welfare and work back to arguments about the difficulties of fully delinking rights to social protection from employment. From a gender perspective, the critical challenge is to rethink labour markets/work to bring unpaid work, and particularly the reproductive sector, within the frameworks of analysis of the economy and markets, while also addressing the inequalities inherent in welfare systems that privilege market- and labour-based “contributory” entitlements over “needs-based” claims to social assistance.

Sarah Cook is the director of UNRISD. Shahra Razavi is research coordinator at UNRISD, working on gender.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 19 Dec 2012
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 2305-5375
    From: UNRISD