Reframing the Measurement of Women’s Work in the Sub-Saharan African Context

Photo by Scott Umstattd via Unsplash.

Surveys that aim to measure the prevalence of women’s work across societies yield varying results. For example, in Ghana, surveys conducted by different groups estimate that anywhere from 59 percent to 85 percent of urban women are employed, but there is no consensus on the actual number. This variation can arise for many reasons, including the dimensions of work that the particular survey intended to capture; the definition of work, field worker experience, work related to the seasons and the relative timing of each of the surveys; the time frame referenced in the survey (last week, last year); a variation in the translation for the word work or survey instrument flow. 

In a new journal article published in Work, Employment and Society, Mahesh Karra and coauthors propose an alternative measure of women’s work that they hypothesize would more accurately reflect its true population prevalence. Drawing on qualitative interviews conducted with 40 women aged 18-35 in Bujumbura, Burundi, the authors found that over half of the women interviewed worked regularly for money in some capacity: one was a public servant, one was a teacher, one worked in a factory and others were engaged in market trading. However, some women who were responsible for housework and childcare expressed that they could not answer the question of “do you work?” with a clear yes or no response.  

Further questions revealed that the women interviewed considered “work” to be a more formal activity, with one woman stating that she would only say she worked if she earned a salary in the formal sector. Current surveys on work, regardless of the approach, assume that work is an activity that defines only one piece of a woman’s individual identity. When the authors interviewed the women in Burundi, however, they did not view work in this way. For them, work was a means of meeting the culturally ascribed role of a woman, and a way for her to meet her societal responsibilities.

As a result of their findings, the authors suggest a new perspective is needed on question framing regarding women’s work in large demographic and economic surveys. They conclude that nesting questions on work within questions about the roles and responsibilities of women in the household, and how those roles and responsibilities are met, provide a more realistic setting for women to respond fully and accurately to large-scale quantitative survey questionnaires.

Read the Journal Article