The invisible women in India’s labour market
India’s female labour force participation rates have been dismal over the past two decades. At 24.5% in 2018-19, its current participation rate is well below the global average of 45%, and is also the lowest in South Asia.
Despite rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP), increasing educational attainment, rising household incomes, and declining fertility, women’s participation in the labour market has plummeted. Even worse, the gender gap in participation is overwhelmingly large and has been widening over the last decade or so. Moreover, there are considerable variations in the rates of women’s labour force participation between rural and urban areas (26.4% for rural versus 20.4% for urban women), and pronounced disparities are witnessed across Indian states.
Multiple factors influence women’s decision to enter the labour market, including demand and supply-side drivers, prevailing socio-cultural and gender norms and attitudes. Specifically, women’s ability to work is influenced by their marital status, the number of children, caste, religion, gender, lack of essential education and vocational skills, and labour market discrimination.
Available evidence suggests that finding a paid job is much harder for women than men. And once they enter the labour market, women still face limited work options, have fewer learning and career advancement opportunities, and operate in deplorable working conditions. They are overrepresented in the informal economy, particularly in vulnerable, low skilled and poorly paid jobs that have limited social security. Equally concerning is the gender-caste intersectionality that is predominant in India and is manifested in differential employment outcomes for women.
One of the often-cited explanations for the declining participation of women has been the rise in enrolment in schools and colleges – making them “unavailable” for paid market work. While this is true, evidence suggests that the decline is not limited to young women workers, and women’s participation has decreased substantially across all age cohorts, especially between 25 to 59 years.
Furthermore, the relationship between educational attainment and women’s labour force participation is not unambiguous. The available data from National Sample Survey Office’s employment-unemployment survey and the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) depicts a U-shaped relationship between education and labour force participation rates of women, strongly evident in the case of urban women. In other words, women with no or less education and women with tertiary levels of education exhibit the highest rates of paid work participation, i.e. they are significantly more likely to be employed than women who have completed secondary schooling. Even so, relatively low labour force participation persists among highly educated urban women.
The low participation rates, however, do not indicate that women are working less. Instead, women’s time and efforts are diverted to unpaid care work (such as raising children, caring for sick and elderly) and domestic work. Women spend disproportionately more time on unpaid care work in India than men, particularly if married. While essential to the welfare of society and the economy, these activities are not accounted for in the System of National Accounts and employment, which means that they remain unrecorded, undervalued and, therefore, find limited focus in policies and programmes aimed at improving labour market outcomes. The Time-use Survey of 2019 shows that, on average, a woman spends 19.5% of her time every day in unpaid responsibilities compared to merely 2.5% by a man. The International Labour Organization notes that the unequal burden of unpaid care constrains women from participating in the paid market work as they are “time-poor”.
Another significant impediment is the lack of women-friendly jobs. Researchers have debated that the overall employment situation for women has not improved in the last couple of years and that the declining labour force participation is associated with their limited involvement in sectors that provide jobs in white-collar services.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only amplified these inequalities further. As per one recent study, the time spent on household and care responsibilities has increased by almost 30% in India due to the closure of schools and care services. Consequently, women have dropped out of the labour market and perhaps may never return.
Women face multiple constraints in society, limiting their mobility and labour market choice, forcing them to take non-wage employment, like working on family farms and rearing cattle, or remain out of the labour force. The need of the hour is to invest in gender-responsive policies to break down these barriers to women’s economic engagement.
Policymakers should take a holistic and integrated approach to improve women’s labour force participation and their overall labour market outcomes by enhancing access to timely and impactful skill development, adequate maternity benefits and entitlements, access to affordable childcare facilities, household infrastructure and provision of other family-friendly policies to reduce the burden of unpaid care work and safe and convenient transportation and public infrastructure. Additionally, providing access to better-paid formal jobs or support for women-led entrepreneurship opportunities, investing in public services and women-friendly public spaces and addressing discriminatory employment practices are also critical.
Imparting necessary vocational and technical skills can have a remarkably beneficial impact on increasing women’s labour force participation in India. According to a recent working paper by IWWAGE, various forms of training, such as formal vocational training, hereditary training, on-the-job training, raise the probability of women’s labour market participation in rural and urban areas.
Finally, we also need to invest in robust data and evidence systems to better measure and count women’s unpaid work and design gender-smart policies and programmes for women’s economic empowerment and overall well-being.
Ruchika Chaudhary is a senior research fellow, Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University
The views expressed are personal