India’s women and the workforce
Why is women’s employment declining in India? The thrust of the predominant explanations is that women are dropping out of paid work or the labour force either because of fear of sexual violence outside the home; or fear of being stigmatised by the community that might see their work as a marker of low status, i.e. the inability of the husband, the main breadwinner, to provide for the family; or a rise in conservative attitudes that believe a woman’s place is inside the home and kitchen, and that if the woman steps outside the socially approved threshold, it would invite a backlash.
All these explanations prima facie sound persuasive and plausible. But consider this. Recorded labour force participation rate (LFPR) of Indian women, never very high, logged a dramatic decline between 2004-05 and 2011-12. It has continued to decline thereafter, albeit at a lower rate. The bulk of the decline has been in the LFPR of rural women, with the sharpest decline seen in the case of Scheduled Tribe or Adivasi women.
How do the mainstream explanations fit in with this basic fact?
Research on the impact of sexual violence on female LFPRs focuses on urban areas; but urban female LFPRs, always lower than rural, have not registered a decline. My ongoing work with my PhD student Jitendra Singh shows virtually no correlation between crime statistics and female LFPRs, not for India, not internationally. Female employment outside the home in rural areas was flat between 2004 and 2017 (the period when the total rural female LFPR registered a decline), and in urban areas, there was a slight upward trend. This picture does not lend credence to the rising stigma story. National Crime Records Bureau data show a rise in assault cases (between 2011 and 2013) and rise in cruelty cases between 2004 and 2013. Rape cases increased from 2011 onwards, with slight fluctuations.
Thus, national data for India does not support the presumed correlation between crimes against women and their (in)ability to work outside the home. Macro-statistics suggest very little connection between the two, if any.
This should not be read to mean that violence against women is not a serious problem, or that it does not adversely affect their work. While there is no evidence that fear of violence keeps women from seeking jobs, for women who have jobs, sexual harassment at the workplace is very real, with devastating consequences for their work and well-being. This is a good place to note that the public focus on external violence is not only misplaced in the context of women’s employment, but the consequent push to keep women indoors completely masks the fact that the bulk of violence against women is perpetrated by those known to them — husband, partner, family, friends. Keeping women locked indoors is absolutely the wrong policy for multiple reasons; most of all it fails in its stated objective, i.e. to protect them from violence.
Data indicate that the decline in LFPRs is driven by women moving from paid to unpaid work and hence not getting counted as “workers”, even though they might continue to be involved in unpaid economic work in family enterprises (farming, livestock, kirana shops, handmade products for sale and so on). These are economic activities, and men involved in them get counted as workers, but not women. This reflects the low value placed on women’s contribution to these activities without which these would not survive. The real issue is the lack of demand for labour in occupations and activities in which women are concentrated. There is important research that shows that what we note as a decline (which is equated with the withdrawal of women from the labour force in the mainstream view) is a manifestation of the changing nature of work availability, especially for rural and less educated women. This body of research raises a question mark on the “dropping out” narrative.
Thus, the proportion of economically active women has not declined, but the number of days they work has, which shows up as a decline in LFPRs. Over the last three decades, there has been a massive decline in agricultural jobs, which has not necessarily been accompanied by an increase in rural non-farm employment or livelihood opportunities. Research shows that mechanisation has led to significantly greater decline in women’s than men’s labour in Indian farms.
There has been movement out of agriculture into informal and casual jobs, where the work is sporadic, and often less than 30 days at a stretch. The new modern-sector opportunities, especially in high value-added service sectors, mostly accrue to men. Despite all this, women who find jobs commensurate with their education levels have to battle hurdles such as lack of transportation and childcare, which could be so severe that they are unable to join that work.
Women’s education has increased significantly over the last two decades, and fertility rates have fallen — both conditions that have historically and elsewhere in the world, contributed to increasing participation of women in paid labour force. But not so in India. The Covid-19 induced economic slowdown has exacerbated the gender gap in paid work, while it has intensified the already high burden of domestic labour on women.
All surveys report a huge unmet demand for work by women. Indian women are not dropping out: They are being pushed out by the lack of demand for their labour.
Ashwini Deshpande is professor of economics and the founder director of Centre for Economic Data and Analysis, Ashoka UniversityThe views expressed are personal