Unseen reasons for the fall in women’s labour force participation in India

India is a country where less than a quarter of women have joined the labour force and only a fifth are employed.

women labour force
India is a country where less than a quarter of women have joined the labour force and only a fifth are employed.

By Mitali Nikore, 

In the year 2017, India achieved two milestones. First, it earned the moniker of the world’s fastest-growing major economy, maintaining growth rates above 7 percent consistently since 2011-12. The second milestone was a grimmer one, for 2017 was the year when India’s female labour force participation and employment levels fell to their lowest ever levels since Independence.

India is a country where less than a quarter of women have joined the labour force and only a fifth are employed. India has amongst the lowest rates of female labour force participation globally, with only parts of the Arab world being lower than India, according to a 2017 World Bank report.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated these trends. Women faced the brunt of the initial lockdown. Between March-April 2020, 26.6 percent of the female workforce, moved out of the labour force, vs. 13.4 percent of men. Even as of December 2020, the size of the female labour force continued to be 14 percent lower than December 2019, vs. 1 percent for men, according to CMIE data.

This presents a queer conundrum – why is it that a country seeing considerable gains in female education, remarkable decreases in fertility rates, and increasing economic growth is not seeing greater participation from women in the workforce?

Occupational segregation

Between 1977 and 2017, India’s economy witnessed a surge in the contribution of services (39 percent to 53 percent) and industry (33 percent to 27 percent) to GDP. The proportion of rural men employed in agriculture fell from 80.6 percent to 53.2 percent, but rural women only decreased from 88.1 percent to 71.7 percent (NSSO data). Between 1994-2010, women received less than 19 percent of new employment opportunities generated in India’s 10 fastest-growing occupations.

Increased mechanisation

In agriculture, and as the use of seed drillers, harvesters, threshers and husking equipment increased, men displaced women. In textiles, power looms, button stitching machines and textile machinery phased out women’s labour. Nearly 12 million Indian women could lose their jobs by 2030 owing to automation, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report.

The income effect

With increasing household incomes, especially over the last three decades, the need for a “second income” reduced. Consequently, families withdrew women from labour as a signal of prosperity. This “income effect” can explain approximately 9 percent of the total decline in the female labour force participation rate between 2005 to 2010.

Gender gaps in higher education and skill training

Tertiary-level female enrolment rose from 2 percent in 1971 to only 30 percent in 2019 (World Bank data). As of 2018-19, only 2 percent of working-age women received formal vocational training, of which 47 percent did not join the labour force (NSSO, 2018-19). Consequently, women form only 17 percent of cloud computing, 20 percent of engineering, and 24 percent of data/artificial intelligence jobs (WEF, 2020).

Social norms

Unpaid care work continues to be a women’s responsibility, with women spending on average five hours per day on domestic work, vs. 30 minutes for men (NSSO, 2019). Women face inordinate mobility restrictions such that only 54 percent can go to a nearby market alone (NFHS, 2015-16). Women regularly sacrifice wages, career progression, and education opportunities to meet family responsibilities, safety considerations, and other restrictions.

In this context, the COVID-19 pandemic has come as a shock, resulting in massive job losses for women, especially informal workers, and slower recovery of women-led microbusinesses. It has also increased domestic work, deepened gender digital divides, disrupted girls’ schooling and placed millions of female health workers at risk.

So, today, on this first Women’s Day post-COVID-19, we need to ask ourselves, where do we go from here?

To chart a gender-sensitive socio-economic recovery post-COVID-19, the government, the private sector, media, and the social sector need to work together to improve working conditions, reduce wage gaps, increase opportunities for women across sectors, and change mindsets. State governments may establish gender-based employment targets for urban public works. Central or state governments can consider introducing wage subsidies to incentivise hiring women in micro, small and medium enterprises. Governments could introduce mandatory or incentives-based gender targets across skill training institutions. Corporates should track the proportion of women at different levels of seniority across job roles. Firms and NGOs should come together to invest in bridging the digital gender divide, offering free mobile phones and laptops to girls from disadvantaged communities, and offer long term training. And most importantly, employers, community organisations, media, and social influencers should promote the anthem of making men equal care-work partners!

(The author is the founder of Nikore Associates, a youth-led economic research think tank. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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First published on: 02-03-2021 at 13:32 IST