Waning women at work
Two unrelated announcements on June 3 are worth taking note of in context of the challenges faced by India’s women workers. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi announced that it will make travelling free for women in Delhi Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation and so-called cluster buses in the national capital. The same day, Zomato, a food search and delivery Unicorn, announced a 26-week parenting leave for both men and women employees along with a $1000 endowment per child. “A myopic view of primary care-giving not only alienates one half of our workforce, but also creates circumstances that lead to fewer female leaders within organisations, the community and the nation”, the company said in its statement.
Last week, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) published the findings of the first Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) report. The PLFS is the first comprehensive official set of statistics on employment in India after the 2011-12 Employment Unemployment Survey (EUS). One of the major findings of the PLFS is that the already existing trend of women withdrawing themselves from the workforce has intensified.
Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR), which measures the share of population which is either working or looking for work, was 54.9% for men and 18.2% for women in rural areas. These figures were 55.6% and 25.3%, respectively in the 2011-12 EUS. The ratio of LFPR for male and population in rural India has increased from 1.7 in 1993-94 to 3 in 2017-18. This gap has always been much higher in urban India, although it has actually gone down marginally between 2009-10 (3.8) and 2017-18 (3.6).
The PLFS report also gives LFPR for persons in the age group of 15-29 years in both rural and urban areas from 2004-05. Here too, the ratio of LFPR among men and women has increased consistently from 1.8 to 3.7 in the rural areas, while it has declined marginally from 3.6 to 3.3 between 2009-10 and 2017-18 in urban areas.
Even though fewer women are willing to join the labour market than men, the latter are paid more than the former. According to statistics from the PLFS, average wages for men are 1.2 to 1.7 times more than that of women depending on whether they are regular wage or casual workers in rural or urban areas. What is even starker is the fact that women with relatively higher education levels face a higher unemployment rate than men, while it is the other way round for education levels up to middle school level.
These statistics capture the two most important challenges for women workers in India. Fewer women than men enter the labour market in the country. Even those who eventually join the labour force are likely to earn less than their male counterparts, and college education actually deprives them of their otherwise better employment prospects vis-à-vis men.
What explains these trends in India’s labour market? The PLFS report gives one hint. More than 50% of women workers among regular wage/salaried workers in India were not entitled for paid leave – leave during sickness, maternity, or such leave, as an employee was eligible to take without loss of pay – in 2017-18. While the number is even higher for male workers, women are always expected to take a bigger burden of household work in Indian households. So, if their jobs do not allow them the option of taking a leave to tend to household needs, they will always be constrained in terms of employment.
That women bear a bigger burden of household work in India is not a subjective claim. According to research done by Bidisha Mondal and others, findings of which were published in a Hindustan Times article by Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, low workforce participation rate (share of employed persons in total population) among women in India is a result of not including unpaid work by Indian women. Ghosh pointed out that if work done by women under three activity codes Code 92 (attended to domestic duties only), Code 93 (attended to domestic duties and also engaged in free collection of goods like vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed, etc, water collection, sewing, tailoring, weaving, etc. for household use) and Code 97 (“Others”, including beggars, prostitutes, etc) are not taken into account in the category of work according to the NSSO, were included, then women ended up with a higher WPFR than men in India. To be sure, Code 97 had a minuscule share among the three activities considered here. Although, the unit level data for PLFS is yet to be released, summary tables given in the report show that the share of women engaged in Code 92 and 93 was 44.2% compared to just 0.9% for men in 2017-18 (See Chart 3).
These statistics clearly suggest that men have a hidden advantage in the labour market in India, as they do not have to share the burden of household work. As income levels rise in the Indian economy and employment shifts from agriculture to the non-agriculture sector, this disadvantage for women is only going to increase.
An article by Daniel Aaronson at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and others published on the Ideas for India website has used an interesting way to measure this effect. The authors have looked at the effect of an additional child on the workforce participation of women using a compiled dataset of 103 countries from 1787 to 2015. The study shows that at lower levels of income, birth of an additional child does not have a significant impact on the decision of women to become a part of the workforce. However, as income levels increase, women workforce participation decreases significantly with the birth of an additional child. The study also finds that negative impact of an additional childbirth is much greater among non-agricultural workers than agricultural or home based workers. “As incomes increase further, employment shifts into formal and wage work, which is inherently less compatible with childcare, creating a negative link between fertility and FLFP (female labour force participation)”, the authors infer. While replicating such an exercise is beyond the scope of journalistic work, headline NSSO numbers which show urban women with lower WFPR than their rural counterparts suggest that something similar could be happening in today’s India as well.
Why should we bother about so many Indian women not being a part of the workforce? The simple answer is that it adversely affects our economic growth. This author had argued in an earlier piece that the gap between per capita GDP between China and India is significantly higher than the gap between per worker GDP between the two countries. The two Asian giants have almost similar WFPR levels for men, but India’s WFPR for women is significantly lower than that of China. These means that getting more women in the workforce could help India in bridging some of its GDP gap vis-à-vis China.
If more and more women were able to find work which allowed them to take time off to tend to their household responsibilities, they would be more amenable to taking up employment. While this is a necessary condition for improving the participation of Indian women in the labour market, it is clearly not sufficient. That would require social and behavioural change, so that the male members of the household bear a bigger share of household responsibilities. Employers encouraging their male employees to do this can be a good way to promote this change.
Even the Delhi government’s policy of waiving off fares for women could help in bridging the gender gap in the labour market.
The PLFS report shows that average daily wages for men were more than that of women by Rs 9 and Rs 57 among regular wage/casual workers in Delhi between July 2017 and June 2018. If the proposed policy ends up saving even Rs 50 for a casual women worker in travelling expenses, it could actually bring gender parity in terms of wages. While the announcement of the Delhi government could be driven by politics rather than concerns of gender equality, it ought to be welcomed for its positive effect in bridging the gender gap.