How to boost women’s workforce participation

Updated on Mar 17, 2022 11:33 AM IST

The numbers are troublesome for several reasons, but we have to collectively acknowledge that this issue cannot and will not be solved at an individual level

Women’s workforce problem in India is systemic and societal, and any efforts have to keep high-level systems-thinking and policy-making in mind to make a real difference to averages (Getty Images/iStockphoto) PREMIUM
Women’s workforce problem in India is systemic and societal, and any efforts have to keep high-level systems-thinking and policy-making in mind to make a real difference to averages (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
ByVarsha Adusumilli

At 16%, India’s female workforce participation rate is among the lowest in the world. As per World Bank data, prior to the pandemic, this number was at 21%. What’s counterintuitive is that the women’s workforce participation problem in India is both region-agnostic and class-agnostic. Rural employment numbers fare better than urban numbers. And, when you look at the top wealth bucket in urban areas, only 6.5% of married Indian women are engaged in paid employment. For unmarried women, this number is at 15%.

The numbers are troublesome for several reasons, but we have to collectively acknowledge that this issue cannot and will not be solved at an individual level. While a few resilient, gritty, and lucky women will get to the top, this may or may not impact the average outcomes. Women’s workforce problem in India is systemic and societal, and any efforts have to keep high-level systems-thinking and policy-making in mind to make a real difference to averages. Based on our ground work at Wonder Girls, here are a few recommendations to help move the needle.

One, make access to relatable female role models and their career paths ubiquitous. India’s girls and boys don’t have access to enough female role models with career paths. Seeing is believing, and providing comprehensive access to female role models and their career paths as part of the curriculum will bring about a positive change. And, if possible, parents should be engaged in this dialogue. What this does is it makes girls more confident and assertive; it makes boys more respectful, and it encourages parents to send their girls into the workforce or at least plan for it. While more hashtag campaigns and Twitter threads are welcome, oftentimes classrooms are at the crux of developmental changes, and they provide spaces for reflection and eventually articulating the change one would like to see.

Two, build an infrastructure for care. Care is the foundational cornerstone on which the economy stands. And, both child care and elder care tend to be emotionally draining and backbreaking for caregivers, and often these jobs are done by women; 40 million Indian women with at least a secondary-level degree stay out of the workforce because of the lack of robust care infrastructure and access to high quality services for caregiving. Unless we see significant capital investments and thoughtful entrepreneurial activity in building the care economy and care infrastructure, we are not going to see a significant change in the women’s workforce numbers. As reported in Shrayana Bhattacharya’s path breaking book on India’s women and economy, Oxfam estimates that unpaid care work done daily by Indian women translates to 19 lakh crore contributed to India’s economy. For what it’s worth, we need to see care jobs as foundational jobs and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Three, look at policy-making through a gendered lens. Social scientist Deepa Narayan and Bhattacharya have both published definitive literature that shines a light on the state of women and economy in the country today. Social science such as this should be made widely accessible, understood, debated, and discussed. Policy-makers and the powers that be could potentially leverage this knowledge while making decisions that impact the masses.

Four, bridge the gender gap in elite engineering education. The future of employment is all things tech and it is already here. We need to do whatever it takes to bridge the gender gap in elite engineering education for large financial outcomes to be equi-distributed. Data shows that girls tend to be excellent at mathematics and sciences at the secondary school level. So, why doesn’t this excellence pan out as admissions into elite engineering programmes? It’s important to note that nobody sleepwalks their way into Indian Institutes of Technology. The entrance exams are hard to crack, and significant investments are made by parents or guardians in intensive exam training and test prep services. Parents should be encouraged to pay for their daughters’ coaching on par with sons. The positive economic repercussions of a change in this direction for families over the long-term and the trickle-down effect could be huge.

Five, design urban spaces through the lens of safety for all. Urban spaces, infrastructure, and architecture can keep some people in and some people out of the workforce. For example, increasingly, airports in large cities are being built on the outskirts, far away from the centre of the cities, and rightfully so, given that our cities are choked. How will this decision-making impact the ability of vulnerable communities to access such spaces? The lack of safe urban spaces or the perception of lack thereof could keep them out of competitive jobs and engagements for which they could be extremely qualified.

Six, create safe digital spaces, especially when it comes to learning. With the booming ed-tech market and flourishing live cohort-based learning solutions, we have an opportunity to rethink and restructure how these digital spaces operate and function. A deep dive into how to make digital learning spaces safe for female learners as well as for female instructors is essential. As more learning and education goes digital, we need to pause and think deeply about the inclusivity and safety of these spaces for diverse users.

Sweden is known to be home to the music industry’s globally renowned songwriters and music producers. Experts who have studied this dominance point out that public music education, subsidised via free after-school programmes, plays a big role in ensuring that musical training is accessible to all. We can learn from Sweden’s music industry and apply some of those learnings to solve the structural and systematic problem that is India’s women’s workforce participation. Oftentimes, it is systems that shape people and outcomes.

Varsha Adusumilli is founder, Wonder Girls, a definitive platform for adolescent girls in India to become future leaders The views expressed are personal.

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