If the workforce participation rate for women in India was the same as for men, roughly 217 million women would join the labour force. The under-representation of women in India’s labour force has been a chronic problem.

At 53 percentage points, India has one of the worst gender gaps (disproportionate difference between the sexes) in the world when it comes to labour force participation, World Bank data shows. Not only other countries in the BRICS grouping, but peer emerging economies in Asia such as Indonesia fare much better when it comes to employing women.

What exactly will employing those additional 217 million do for India? International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde says it will boost India’s economic output by as much as 27%.

“If the number of female workers were to increase to the same level as the number of men, GDP (gross domestic product) in the United States would expand by 5%, by 9% in Japan, and by 27% in India," Lagarde said on Sunday, while speaking at the launch of the W20, a grouping of women leaders from G20 countries.

The abysmal women labour force participation rate has been a structural problem in India. As Mint has pointed out earlier, India’s female labour force participation rate fell nearly seven percentage points to 22.5% between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to NSSO data. The sixth economic census reiterates these findings. While women make up nearly half the population, they account for only a quarter of workers employed, it said.

The reasons for poor participation of women in the workforce are well-known. Social mores play a major role. For instance, women’s economic participation is highest in the northeastern states, where women traditionally enjoy a higher status in society. Economic census data shows the gender gap to be higher in urban areas. In rural areas, high poverty and the economic necessity of work helps bridge the gap. A high wage gap between men and women for the same work also acts as a deterrent.

‘In Labour Force Participation of Women in India: Some facts, some queries’, Surjit Bhalla and Ravinder Kaur point out that discrimination against women, starting from practices like sex-selective abortion, is a possible reason for poor participation of women in the workforce.

The lack of safety and supporting infrastructure plays a role in deterring many educated, urban women from pursuing careers. In her speech, Lagarde cited the example of rural South Africa, where electrification led to a 9% increase in participation of women in the labour force.

All these factors have one common theme: they perpetuate gender inequality. India’s rank in the United Nations Gender Inequality Index for 2012 is lower than the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Improving that is perhaps one way to boost economic growth.