Number Theory: Why do women drop out of the labour force in India?
The biggest reason why women stop working, even looking for a job—this is what being in the labour force entails – is because they have to be home makers. As far as men are concerned, this is hardly a constraint.
India is a global laggard when it comes to the share of working women. What explains this? The anecdotal reason proffered is child care and home making responsibilities. Now, for the first time, there is evidence to show that the anecdotal answer to this question is also the factual one.
The biggest reason why women stop working, even looking for a job—this is what being in the labour force entails – is because they have to be home makers. As far as men are concerned, this is hardly a constraint. The disproportionate burden of home making is not just a factor for married women or those who have not had the opportunity to educate themselves, but for all women. Here are five charts which explain in detail what this means for India.
We now know reasons why people are out of the labour force
The 2020-21 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) has sought answers for the first time on why people are out of the labour force. These responses were sought according to their usual status of economic activity, which means anybody who was not working or was looking for a job for the majority of the year before the survey date is considered outside the labour force.
Data shows that 43% of women who were not a part of the labour force were so on account of child care and home making responsibilities. For men, this number was just 1.5%. To be sure, one in three women who were out of the labour force were pursuing education. For men who were out of the labour force, education was the reason in three -fourth of the cases.
An HT analysis of unit level data from PLFS shows that not all of the 33% women who were not a part of the labour force due to educational enrolment can be expected to enter the workforce. This becomes apparent from the difference in responses for not being part of the labour force for married and unmarried women across age-groups. As soon as a woman is married, pursuit of education as a reason for not being a part of labour force becomes almost irrelevant and there is a sharp increase in the attribution of home-making and child care for being out of labour force.
Using unit-level data from PLFS to look at reasons for women being out of the labour force by educational-status shows this clearly. For women aged 19 years and above, no matter what the educational classification, half of them are out of the labour force due to homemaking and childcare responsibilities. This is true even for women with a post-graduate degree.
While the latest PLFS numbers are the first official evidence of disproportionate burden of household work preventing women from taking up gainful employment, the findings are not entirely unexpected. For example, findings of the 2019 Time Use Survey (TUS), which was also carried out by the National Statistical Office (NSO), clearly show that women ended up devoting far more time to unpaid household work than men and therefore lost out on time available for employment. TUS, like the latest PLFS data showed this to be a problem across educational status.
Data from the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) shows that the consequences of not “delivering” on household work responsibilities can be very unpleasant for women. 27.6% of the women and 21.9% of the men in the 2019-21 NFHS felt that it was alright for the husband to unleash physical violence if a woman neglects the children of the house. Similarly,13.7% women and 10.1% men thought wife beating is justified if a woman does not cook properly.
A comparison of a 2019 cross country data set from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that India was ranked 111 among 116 countries in terms of the gender gap in labour force participation. As is clear from the data, India is not just a laggard vis-à-vis developed countries but also most of its emerging market peers. The latest PLFS data, when read with the evidence from the 2019 TUS tells us that unless social norms change, there is little hope of any significant improvement in the gender gap in India’s labour force participation.