The image of Mumbai as a city of working women is just that – an image. The reality is far from the visible symbols and anecdotal evidences of women rushing to work. Hardly 16% of the city’s women are in the formal workforce, according to Census Survey 2011 data.
Delhi, India’s other mega city, clocks in lower than Mumbai with only 13% of its women in the workforce but that is not a consolation. Across urban India, women in the workforce are about 15.5% which is about half of the country average of 27%. This means, of course, that more rural women work than women in cities. Whether this is out of choice or compulsion is debatable.
This aspect of women’s empowerment received barely any attention yesterday as the International Working Women’s Day was marked with customary and trite statements from those in power. There were repeated assertions and stale promises about women’s empowerment, there were tokenisms such as the all-women Air India flight and so on. But the issue of bringing more women into the workforce was hardly addressed.
Women’s empowerment is closely linked to their health, education and work. Independent India managed to raise the health standards of its women and educate its girls and women. Serious problems persist in both these sectors but the gains are visible. However, in the field of work, much less has been done.
Long-term and reliable research in this area now has the evidence for our common sense understanding of the issue: women’s economic participation is directly and strongly co-related to a country’s economic growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When women advance economically, it indeed empowers them but it also leads to greater overall prosperity.
India ranks near the bottom of a list of countries with women in workforce. And urban India drags down the rank. Studies tell us that women are either “not prepared” or “not enabled” to join the workforce. The first has to do with not receiving sufficient education or appropriate skills training. Only when women become better educated or skilled, they develop a sense of independence to make decisions about working, as employees or entrepreneurs.
The second has to do with the complex social and political support women get – or not – to take up work opportunities. It spans family, legal, logistical and financial dimensions, and includes employment policies and non-discriminatory work environments in both the government and private sectors. Urban women do not find themselves “enabled” to join the workforce. Here lies the challenge.
In Mumbai as in other cities, the number of women in informal sectors has risen. They work as domestic helps, daily wage labourers in manufacturing units or low-wage workers in the service sector. This, according to Vibhuti Patel, head of the department of Economics, SNDT University, is a sign of both economic and gender helplessness.
Financial desperation drives women in low-income households to work in these sectors, often without appropriate compensation and in insecure work environments. Domestic work is among the fastest-growing sectors for urban working women. Women at the bottom end of the income spectrum are forced to work while those at the other end can choose to be working; the latter are at senior levels in finance or IT industries, she says. The challenge is to have the maximum numbers in the middle join the workforce.
The mis-match between women’s education levels and workforce participation, especially in cities such as Mumbai, needs more studies that can lead to course correction in policies. Conservative sceptics ask if women really want to work. They should see the National Sample Survey (NSS) data which shows that 31% of women who stay at home in urban India would like to do some kind of a job; the lack of a support system at home, time-consuming commutes and discriminatory work environments keep them away.
It is time that governments and employers deliberated on how to get more women into the workforce – for the women and for the GDP.