Is labour-intensive employment compatible with social justice and environmental sustainability? This paper examines the question of how far small-scale, intermediate technology based on energy-intensive human work, which is central to prescriptions for poverty alleviation and sustainable development, is compatible with development objectives emphasizing gender equity. Work intensity is a neglected characteristic of labour but significant in the determination of human well-being and in the intra-household distribution of welfare. The intensification of energy expenditure does not affect men and women in a uniform way and needs to be gender disaggregated in order to reveal potential trade-offs between development strategies based on ‘labour intensive growth’ and the well-being of men and women. The paper draws upon the experience with treadle pumps for irrigation in Bangladesh as an illustration of such potential trade-offs and argues for more rigorous analyses of gender divisions of labour, which include work intensity in combination with time allocation.