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How Indian men are keeping women out of the workforce

The participation level of women has been dropping since 2005, despite having 42% women who are graduates.

editorials Updated: May 31, 2017 17:08 IST
World Bank Development Report
Women workers on their way home after completing work at a construction site Karad, Maharashtra, 2016 (PTI)

The World Bank’s India Development Report, which was released on Monday, had some serious news for the country’s policymakers. The country, the report said, had one of the world’s lowest female participation in the workforce, ranking 120th among 131 countries for which data was available. More worryingly, it added that the while overall job creation has been limited, most of the new ones have been grabbed by men given the social norms. And this is not all: The participation level of women has been dropping since 2005, despite having 42% women who are graduates. The Census figures show that the decade between 2001 and 2011 has seen a 116% increase in women graduates, compared with a 65% increase for men.

Despite such high levels of educational attainment and also declining fertility rates, women seem to be missing from the formal economy. Research done by Rohini Pande, a professor of public policy and co-director of the Evidence for Policy Design Initiative at Harvard University, and her team sheds light on why it is critical to have more women in the workforce: Working, and the control of assets it allows, lowers rates of domestic violence and increases women’s decision-making in the household. “And an economy where all the most able citizens can enter the labour force is more efficient and grows faster,” says Ms Pande. Her analysis of data from India’s labour surveys shows that over a third of women engaged primarily in housework want a job but they don’t get or are not allowed to do thanks to “persistence of India’s traditional gender norms, which seek to ensure “purity” of women by protecting them from men other than their husbands and restrict mobility outside their homes”. The other challenges, which Ms Pande mentions, include: Lack of access to traditional male-dominated job networks and also the fact that women often end up in lower-paid and less-responsible positions than their abilities would otherwise allow them – which, in turn, makes it less likely that they will choose to work at all, especially as household incomes rise and they don’t absolutely have to work to survive.

In the recent times, the discussion in India has been overwhelmingly on lack of jobs. While that is a real challenge, policymakers must also invest time and energy to figure out ways to ensure that India’s women have the opportunity to undertake rewarding work — “work that will allow them to determine the course of their own lives, those of their families and that of their country”, as Pande succinctly puts in a newspaper article.