As women in much of the world are joining the labour pool, Indian women are leaving it.
Indian women are rapidly leaving the workforce
Indian women are leaving the workforce in droves. Since 2005, the percentage of working-age Indian women who participate in the labour force has dropped by 10 percent, the largest drop of any country in the world during the same time period, according to data from the International Labour Organization.
The exodus of Indian women from the labour pool undermines the popular narrative of a modernizing India, where women are free to enter public life as the country sheds its patriarchal past. It also calls into question the effectiveness of the government’s recent efforts to promote gender equality.
In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself made the case for women in the workplace. “If the capacity of women is built, and they are linked with the development process, then the development of any country is speeded exponentially,” Modi told the Press Trust of India.
By that measure, India’s development ought to be speeding in reverse. Between 1990 and 2005, the percentage of working-age Indian women in the workforce rose from 35 percent to 37 percent. In the last decade, however, the country has reversed course, with female labour participation declining to just 27 percent by 2014. That’s tied for 16th-lowest in the world.
|Papua New Guinea||71||70||-1|
|Virgin Islands (U.S.)||55||54||-1|
|Trinidad and Tobago||54||53||-1|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||71||71||0|
|Central African Republic||72||73||1|
|Republic of the Congo||68||69||1|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||32||34||2|
|West Bank and Gaza||14||16||2|
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines||53||56||3|
|Sao Tome and Principe||41||46||5|
|United Arab Emirates||37||46||9|
There are several likely reasons for the drop off. Sher Verick, an economist at the International Labour Organization based in New Delhi, pointed to increased educational enrollment and a withdrawal from agricultural labour as two likely causes.
Anuradha Chatterji, a manager at the human rights organization CREA, also blamed lax enforcement of workplace sexual harassment policies, which have become more important as women move from rural agricultural work to urban office jobs.
Over the last decade, women in most of the world’s countries have enjoyed greater participation in the labour force: 114 countries out of 185 recorded an increase in the percentage of women who earn incomes. Only 41 countries experienced drops in female labour participation.
Megha Kapoor Mehra, 27, worked at the office of a major accounting firm in Gurgaon for nearly five years, rising quickly through the ranks of the company. But last November, Mehra quit her job when her superiors began to question her commitment to the firm after she announced her marriage engagement.
“People were saying, ‘Your commitment level has changed, your seriousness has changed,’” even though she had continued to work the same amount of hours, Mehra said. “If a man is getting married, I don’t think he would get that kind of reaction at work.”
It seemed as if the firm’s few successful women had been forced at some point to choose their work over their family, a decision men did not have to make.
The pressures from home, too, proved overwhelming. After she married, she moved in with her husband’s family, who were uncomfortable with her leaving for work at 8 in the morning and coming home at 8 at night.
Mehra said she hopes to find a job again, though she does not know when that might be. “I won’t let all my experience and all my knowledge go to waste,” she said.
The Indian economy excludes women like Mehra at its peril. According to a 2012 report by Booz and Company, India’s gross domestic could grow by as much as 27 percent if women worked as much as men.
“Ultimately, from a macroeconomic perspective, women’s participation and engagement in work and entrepreneurship is critical if India is to sustain a high level of inclusive growth,” Verick said.
To be sure, some women who are able to join the workforce do not wish to do so. But many others who would like to work are barred from doing so, often due to customs beyond their control.
In a country where men share very little housework, many Indian women are too occupied with household duties to also take on a job. Others are unable to earn money when the demands of raising children fall squarely on their shoulders.
“Either I had to join my work after my maternity leave, or I had to leave my work,” recalled Madhumita Nath, 32, of her experience at an NGO in Kolkata. “I did try to make things work and to see if the baby can be brought to the office, and if a room could be arranged. We did explore this kind of thing, but things didn't work out.”
Ineke Bezembinder, a spokesperson for Women on Wings, a non-profit that creates jobs for women in rural India, said that for some women, earning an income can provide benefits in addition to having more money to spend.
“Their position in their family and even in their community changes,” Bezembinder said. “In the eyes of their in-laws, they go from being a burden to being someone who looks after the family and contributes to the family income.”