Home / Opinion / Columns /  Societal norms and women’s low labour force presence

When you land at Mumbai’s airport, you can book a prepaid taxi service. You’ll find a separate counter if you want a woman driver. It is meant for women passengers who prefer to have a female driver for that extra assurance of safety. Presumably, if an equivalent option were available to men, it would have gone unnoticed. What took so long for women-driven airport cabs to be introduced? For that matter, why are women-driven taxis not more common in other metro cities, and not just at airports? What about bus conductors? Of course, women in the workforce are increasingly more visible, and not just as casual labour or farm workers. In some places, the presence of women is remarkable. For instance, female participation in projects under the national rural employment guarantee scheme (not exactly a badge of honour but still) is about 50%. India also boasts of the highest share of female airline pilots at 15% while the world average is barely 5%. Not too long ago, half of India’s banking assets were under institutions headed by women (and so was one of our stock exchanges). India had a female head of state decades before most other countries. And not to forget women finance and defence ministers, important glass ceilings that were breached.

Yet, these achievements starkly highlight, or rather belie, the true state of affairs when it comes to women and the (paid) workforce in India. Our female labour force participation rate (LFPR) is now among the world’s lowest at around 20%, on par with countries like Saudi Arabia. As per a report by the International Labour Organization, India ranks 121 out of 131 countries on female LFPR. This data is pre-covid, and the pandemic could have worsened the ratio. Indeed, when joblessness rises, women drop out first. And when job growth is slow, men are given preference. This is corroborated by a recent survey by Pew Research Center, which showed that 82% of men and 77% of women respondents said that men should have more rights to a job than women when jobs are scarce. This reflects a strong societal norm and internalized patriarchy.

India’s female LFPR has fallen by more than 20 percentage points over a period of 16 years. In 2004-5, as per the Usual Principal Subsidiary Status definition, the all-India LFPR for women above the age of 15 was at 42.7%. By 2009-10, it had fallen to 32.7%. This ratio has slid sharply since then. Three decades of economic reforms after 1991 have meant higher incomes as well as employment growth and better job opportunities. This should have increased, not decreased, women in the workforce in relative terms.

Two reasons that work against an increase in female LFPR, which also lead to the well-known U-shape hypothesis, are the following. As people’s primary occupation shifts away from agriculture, increased household incomes from higher male earnings combine with a social stigma of women working outside home to draw them indoors. The second reason could be that as female enrolment in schools and colleges rises, it keeps them away from the labour force for longer. But after the decline (the downward part of the U-shape), as incomes and levels of education rise further, the opportunity cost of staying away from work (and maybe attending to childcare) increases for women, as the work stigma also recedes. We then see the upper part of the U-shaped curve; i.e., higher income countries show a higher female LFPR. India does not exhibit this.

The causes of India’s low female LFPR are many, and some of them may be idiosyncratic to Indian society. For instance, the societal norm that childcare is primarily a woman’s responsibility, coupled with an unavailability of quality creches, means that women choose to opt out. The probability of a woman coming back to work after her first maternity is less than 30%. The pro-women law of 2016 that mandated 26-week maternity leave could have perversely decreased rather than increased women’s participation in the workforce, as companies may have grown more reluctant to recruit women of child-bearing age. TeamLease had estimated an additional loss of 1.8 million female jobs attributable to this piece of legislation alone. The cure, of course, is not to dilute the maternity-leave entitlements, but instead solve the problem of availability of quality and affordable childcare (a case of missing markets perhaps?). Mandatory recruitment of women also tends to meet resistance. When the Indo-Tibetan Border Police was asked to reserve 15% of its positions for women, it wouldn’t hire even 2%. By contrast, in neighbouring Bangladesh, more than 90% of its garment-industry workers are women. Apart from social norms inhibiting the growth of our female LFPR, a not-so-well discussed aspect is women’s safety, and the availability of safe public transport to and from work.

India’s low LFPR stands in sharp contrast to the performance of female students in academia. For instance, almost half the incoming batch of MBBS students are female, but less than 15% of the country’s practising doctors are women. This is true for many other professions too. India has a lot of catching up to do. We need much higher and meaningful participation of women not just in the workforce, but also in legislatures, our police and armed forces and the judiciary. The real Women’s Day celebration would be when that special woman-driver taxi counter at Mumbai airport will become redundant and there will be as many women drivers as men.

Ajit Ranade is a Pune-based economist

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