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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Work Intensity, Gender and Well-Being

Employment is central to current understandings of poverty and well-being, as well as to prescriptions for poverty reduction. Labour-intensive growth and greater labour force participation by women are major policy recommendations in the New Poverty Agenda of the 1990s, and they are prominent elements in the discourse on Women in Development. But gender analysts paint a complex picture of women and work. They note that women often face social and ideological constraints when seeking, obtaining and performing work outside households. And the objective of increasing female employment can — in the context of long working days and household duties — contribute to what has been termed "time famine", with negative effects on women's health and well-being.

But the development discourse in general, and poverty and gender debates in particular, often treat "labour" more as an abstract category than as a physical experience. This means that there is very little useful literature on work intensity, let alone on gender-specific work intensities. Yet an analysis of varying levels of energy expended in carrying out different forms of work, as this is related to individual physical strength, shows that women and men have different capacities for physical effort at different stages in their life cycles. Both biological differences and socio-cultural norms are significant in this regard.

Focusing on the relation between well-being and the arduousness of work, the authors consider the implications of a number of poverty eradication policies for the well-being of the poor. They look, in particular, at agricultural extensification, effort-intensive growth, certain environmentally friendly and "sustainable" technologies, and self-targeting through the labour test — a component of food-for-work programmes in which employment is offered to people at such low levels of remuneration that the non-poor do not compete for jobs. And they ask why, when people throughout the world attempt to improve well-being through avoiding heavy physical labour, poverty alleviation strategies do not concentrate more systematically on generating acceptable returns for lower levels of human energy expenditure.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 1998
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD