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Graphic: Mint
Graphic: Mint

India’s post-covid ‘recovery’ in employment has not been equal for men and women

  • First the good news - the jobs are returning post-lockdown. Then the bad news - some women are being left behind, new research indicates.

India’s economic recovery could be leaving out working women, particularly those with young children and in rural areas, new evidence indicates. Research by Ashwini Deshpande, professor of Economics at Ashoka University shows that by August 2020 most of those who had reported being employed pre-pandemic were back in work. But women’s economic recovery lagged behind that of men. This was particularly true of rural women, her research shows.


Deshpande examined data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)’s household surveys that collect weekly data from a rolling panel of roughly 11,000 households each week. In all, roughly 40,000 households across the country are interviewed each month, and roughly 175,000 households each quarter on their work, income, and consumption patterns.

Deshpande created a panel of individuals who were observed in all of the five most recent ‘waves’ - right from January 2019 to August 2020 - and for whom employment data are available, to be able to study the changes in the specific circumstances of households as they went through the pandemic. Within this panel of over 55,000 households, Deshpande found that the likelihood of women being employed in August 2020 was 9.5 percentage points lower than that for men, compared to the pre-pandemic period.

Women with no children appear to have had the best rebound in terms of employment while women with very young children have been the worst hit. Women with young children had the lowest employment levels immediately pre-covid, and they have been further hit by the pandemic.

While not representative of the working Indian woman on account of being well-off and in a white-collar job, Savitha A. is one such woman who quit her job at the end of July 2020 on account of the lack of childcare for her two-year-old twins. An engineer with a Bengaluru-based furniture website, Savitha and her husband relied on a live-in nanny, who returned to her native village in Tamil Nadu in May. “I was given a lot of time and leeway and work-from-home opportunities, but I just haven’t been able to find reliable childcare, and I cannot work effectively with the twins around," she said.

For men, relatively little has changed on this count. Both pre- and post-lockdowns, men with very young children remained the most likely to be employed. When the lockdown first hit in April 2020, their employment rates saw the biggest decline, Deshpande’s panel data shows. But their employment rates have recovered since.


The most educated women (those with postgraduate degrees or higher) did not face a sharp drop in employment in April 2020, when most other groups were experiencing their worst contractions. But their employment rates took a hit in August 2020.


“This is likely to be both due to supply side factors, i.e. due to an increase in hours spent on household work as well as due to the specific nature of recovery," wrote Deshpande in her discussion paper. “This needs to be investigated more thoroughly."

When Deshpande first looked at the earliest CMIE post-lockdown data which was for April 2020, there was a significant change in the way men and women were sharing unpaid housework.


With men at home so much more, the gender gap in housework contracted on account of men putting in more hours. By August 2020, however, men were putting in far less time again, although the gap was not back to its pre-pandemic level yet.


India is not alone in facing a gendered economic impact and recovery. In the United States, the female unemployment rate has overtaken the male unemployment rate in the post-covid period, and the workforce participation rate for women has fallen faster than it has for men. The difference is that India went into the pandemic with one of the world’s lowest workforce participation rates for women, and a deeply gendered division of unpaid household labour. If the hope was that in a post-pandemic world some of these cleavages would close, that appears to be far from being the case yet.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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