Just nine countries around the world, including Syria and Iraq, now have a fewer proportion of working women than India, new official data confirms. And if Bihar were a country, it would have the lowest share of working women in the world. Among urban women who do work, domestic cleaning work is the second most common profession after textile-related jobs, the periodic labour force survey (PLFS) data published by the NSSO show.

India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR)—the share of working-age women who report either being employed, or being available for work—has fallen to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18, meaning that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work. (The age of 15 is the cut-off used for global comparisons by the International Labour Organization.) This would imply that they are most likely running the house and taking care of children.

India’s low LFPR was already a matter of concern in 2011-12, and placed India 12th from the bottom globally. The further fall since then comes mainly from rural areas—female LFPR crashed by seven percentage points, while male LFPR remained roughly the same.

While some of the fall in women’s workforce participation is explained by higher rates of higher education enrolment, indicating that more young women are in higher education rather than working or looking for jobs, the data also points to a fall in working rates for older women.

While the LFPR for women aged 15-29 fell by eight percentage points between 2011-12 and 2017-18 to 16.4%, the LFPR for women fell by at least seven percentage points for every age bracket between 30-50 as well. The decline was highest among women aged 35-39 years (LFPR for this age bracket fell 9 percentage points to 33.5%). Among women in the prime working ages of 30-50, more than two in three women are not in the workforce, with the majority of them reporting that they are “attending to domestic duties only".

Among men, caste and religion make no real difference to workforce participation rates. But among women, Muslim women have the lowest LFPR while among Hindu women, forward caste women have the lowest LFPR, implying that social norms and religious conservatism might play a role in women being “allowed" to work.

Among Indian states, Bihar has by far the lowest rates of female workforce participation, while the southern and eastern states do better.

Among those in the workforce, rural women work overwhelmingly in agriculture, which could offer a clue to understanding the falling rates of rural workforce participation. It is likely that non-farm jobs are rare, especially for women.

The most common jobs for urban women are of garment workers, domestic cleaners and ‘directors and chief executives’.

That last one is also the most common job for urban men. Sounds high-skilled and well-paying? Not so much, labour economists find: it might just be a fancy-sounding way of describing women who run their own small enterprises.

“99% of (women workers described as directors and chief executives) were self-employed, of which around one-third worked as unpaid family workers," economists Bidisha Mondal, Jayati Ghosh, Shiney Chakraborty and Sona Mitra found using 2011-12 National Sample Survey Office data, for an Azim Premji University working paper.

“Such women were mainly engaged within the self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and had thus been recorded as directors or working proprietors, even as their activities, for the most part, remained confined to food processing and garment manufacturing. A large proportion of self-employed women workers were also engaged in outsourced manufacturing work, typically characterised by low earnings, long hours of work and lack of any form of social protection."

The high-skilled, white collar jobs that young women desire are rare. Instead, domestic work, house cleaning and salespeople dominate the urban sector for women. The only exception is the teaching profession, which makes it to the top 10 most common jobs for women.

The average working Indian woman works a longer week than her developing country counterparts.

The average employed Indian woman worked 44.4 hours per week (in the April-June 2018 period) as against the developing country average of 35-36 hours, as per ILO estimates. But in both developed and developing countries, women perform the vast majority of unpaid household and care work.

The unadjusted gender wage gap—the gap in the earnings of men and women in regular, salaried jobs, without accounting for differences in hours worked and educational qualifications—was significant. In rural areas, a male salaried employee earned nearly 1.4 to 1.7 times a female salaried employee, while in urban areas, salaried men earned 1.2 to 1.3 times a salaried woman.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist

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