New Delhi: The fact that women in India make up nearly half the population but account for less than a quarter of its paid workforce has vexed and baffled economists for long. Now, a study by the Harvard Kennedy School joins the debate and explores the reasons.
Conducted by the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD), a team of Harvard faculty researchers, and the Institute for Financial Management and Research in India, the study explores the constraints on female labour force participation amongst single, rural women aged between 18 and 25.
The study interviewed participants in a government vocational programme that targets rural youths living below the poverty line and offers jobs after completion of training. It found that while 84% of the male participants and 72% of the women received an initial job offer, only 68% of these men and 56% of these women accepted the job.
Why, it asked, and found a significant gender gap in the reasons given.
For women, the most frequently cited reason was ‘family related’ (48%), followed by ‘personal problem’ and ‘pay too low’ (about 12% each). Among men, the most commonly cited reason was ‘pay too low’ (37%), ‘family related’ (21%) and simply ‘not interested’ (over 15%).
A year after completing training, only 20% of women were still working, whereas 35% of men had stuck it out. Once again, it is evident that men face significantly less family pressure than women. The women had quit due to family pressure and marriage related reasons (27%), with low wages being the second biggest reason (21%). For men, however, low wages was the single biggest reason for quitting (45%). Family pressure and marriage related reasons (15%) for men trailed behind ‘noise and air pollution’, ‘insufficient money to survive’ and even, ‘job was boring’.
Initial findings of the study were released last week and a complete analysis will be available later this year.
India has one of the world’s largest gender gaps when it comes to labour force participation. With just 27% of women aged 15 and older in the work force, India hovers just above Saudi Arabia among G20 countries, found a 2015 International Monetary Fund (IMF) background paper. The comparative figure for Indian men is 80%. Moreover, according to the data analysis website IndiaSpend, 25 million women have left the workforce in the past 10 years.
“Data our study team has analysed highlight that many more Indian women want to work than actually do, yet some very specific constraints on young women’s labour force participation keeps them out,” Charity Troyer Moore, India Research Director EPoD at Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the study team, responded in an email. “Young women disproportionately report family pressures keep them from accepting jobs after participating in government-funded skilling, and family and marriage-related pressures are also more likely to drive them to leave jobs,” she said.
Ironically, and somewhat paradoxically, the fall in female labour force participation has coincided with improvements in other indicators for women’s empowerment such as education and fertility rates. Female labour force participation fell by nearly seven percentage points to 22.5% between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data. During the same period, the gender gap in primary and secondary education has been erased and fertility rates fell from 4.3 births per woman in 1990 to 2.6 births in 2015.
Women’s participation in the workplace is crucial for several reasons. A September 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) found that India could increase its GDP by 16% to 60% by 2025 if women participated in the economy at par with men. IMF director Christine Lagarde also said last year that GDP in India would expand by 27% if women participated in the workplace at the same rate as men.
Women’s labour force participation is “correlated with their own well-being”, said Troyer Moore. “Improved labour market prospects for Indian girls has even been shown to increase parents’ willingness to invest in their daughters’ human capital,” she said.
The labour force participation gap manifests itself not just in terms of fewer women in the workforce. Women also end up doing a disproportionate share of unpaid work – caring for children and adults, cooking, cleaning, fetching water and so on. The MGI report says the value of this unpaid work globally is $10 trillion, or 13% of global GDP, per year.
Because of the unpaid work they do, a young woman entering the job market today can expect to do, on average, four years more of work than her male peers over a career lifetime, states a report ‘Not Ready, Still Waiting’, by UK-based non-government organisation ActionAid. Scheduled to be released at the UN General Assembly on Thursday, the report argues that women will continue to experience inequality unless their unpaid work is recognised and redistributed.
ActionAid is calling on governments, particularly in the developing world, to deliver quality public care services, agree to minimum wage standards, and pass equal pay and family friendly workplace legislation.