Women’s participation in labour market reflects a declining trend
While women account for almost half of India’s population, their participation in the labour market is almost one-third; the worrying part is that it is declining.
In various editions of his Mann ki Baat radio address, the Prime Minister has emphasised that our daughters are our pride and from our daughters only does our society draw its strength, and hope for future. He has stressed that “ensuring women have equal participation in every sphere of social and economic life is our duty”. Accordingly, a campaign, #SheInspiresUs, has been launched in the run-up to International Women’s Day, 2020.
The inspiring role of women in the Indian economy is evident from their crucial role in nurturing a healthier generation through the Anganwadi system staffed by over 1.6 million female workers. Women are also creating wealth through self-help groups (SHGs) from Kudumbashree in Kerala to Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Gujarat.
Around 60 million women have been mobilised into over 5.4 million SHGs under the Deen Dayal Antodaya Yojana - National Rural Livelihoods Mission. Recognising the potential of these SHGs and women entrepreneurs, the government has launched ‘Womaniya’ on Government e Marketplace (GeM) to develop female entrepreneurship . Also, as part of this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations, the government is planning to give 3,000 women belonging to 150 SHGs access to the GeM portal so that they can sell their products.
Despite these successes, as the Economic Survey 2019-20 shows, the trend in participation of women in India’s workforce is not encouraging. While women account for almost half of India’s population, their participation in the labour market is almost one-third; the worrying part is that it is declining. Female labour force participation rate (LFPR) for productive age-group (15- 59 years) has shown a declining trend from 33.1% in 2011-12 to 25.3% in 2017-18. Although female LFPR is higher in rural areas than in urban areas, the rate of decline is also sharper in rural areas than in urban areas. Thus, gender disparity in India’s labour market has increased.
Among young females (15-29 years), around 52.3% were engaged in domestic activities in 2017-18; this proportion has increased over the last two decades. Similarly, in the age group 30- 59, the proportion of females attending to domestic duties increased from 46% in 2004-05 to 65.4% in 2017-18. In the productive age group (15-59 years), about 60% of working age females were attending to domestic duties only; this proportion is less than 1% for males. A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that improved gender diversity can add $12 trillion to the world GDP by 2025 and India can contribute an incremental $700 billion to the global GDP – one-third of the additional GDP required for a $5 trillion Indian economy.
Therefore, the enhancement of women’s LFPR can contribute immensely to economic growth while bringing the necessary balance in social norms relating to women.
What may be the underlying reasons for the low and declining female LFPR in India? As detailed in the Economic Survey, 2019-20, various studies have shown that the pursuit of higher education, increase in rural incomes, cultural factors, social constraints, higher responsibilities of domestic work and childcare could be constraining women’s participation in the labour market.
On the demand side, the absence of job opportunities, quality jobs and significant gender wage gap are restraining factors. The structural shift away from agricultural employment not accompanied by a concomitant increase in opportunities for women in the manufacturing sector may be a major factor.
Government policies aimed at addressing the falling LFPR have mainly focused on launching employment programmes with special provisions to incentivise female employment such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme and Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency. These have been supplemented with supportive legislation, special skill training programmes; and promoting education of the girl child.
However, not much attention has been given to addressing the underlying social norms that may compel women to be primary caregivers and homemakers and look down upon males contributing to this work.
In India, where social and cultural norms play a dominant role in influencing behaviour, using the principles of behavioural economics can provide a valuable instrument for change. The success of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme has demonstrated a powerful use of the insight on ‘social norm’ in its #SelfiewithDaughter initiative. By drawing attention to positive influencers, especially friends/neighbours who represent role models with which people can identify, the celebration of the girl child quickly became the norm. Two elements enabled the campaign’s success: first, telling people what the norm is, and second, showcasing the thousands of other people who were acting in line with that norm.
Our scriptures worship women as the Goddess Lakshmi who is the embodiment of ‘shakti’ and ‘wealth’. Given the importance of messaging, the cultural and social norms empowering women need to be emphasized. The social norm that “women are equal to men” and that “it is great to share the burden of domestic chores” needs to be created. Since many positive mythological insights about gender equality are readily available and deeply understood in Indian society, these can be used to bring about a revolution in women’s participation. This involves an explicit statement of the new norm of gender equality and sharing the burden of domestic work, focusing attention on all those who adopt the new norm (and avoiding giving attention to those who do not) and to continuously reinforcing the norm over time. Identifying, engaging with and publicizing local role models in the community is a useful way to reinforce the message.
Partners working together have a greater ability in challenging social norms (a key step in dismantling an existing social norm) compared to individuals acting on their own. Promoting the visibility of working women and emphasizing their role as a significant contributor can help counter norms about the role of women.
It is necessary to not only shift social norms held within communities, but also within institutions and workplaces. These are norms that prevent employers from hiring women in certain occupations, fairly remunerating them and discouraging sexual harassment in workplaces. Positive deviants within the sectors need to be highlighted to promote positive social norms within their own organizations and act as the first movers in their industries/sectors.
So, on this women’s day, let us join forces, irrespective of gender, to create wealth and contribute equally to making India a $5 trillion economy and a vibrant inclusive society.
(K V Subramanian is Chief Economic Advisor to Government of India and Surbhi Jain is Director in the Ministry of Finance)