Digital infrastructure is aiding women too unevenly

Women with basic digital literacy skills were able to take advantage of mobile phones and increase their chances of participating in the labour force by 29%.
Women with basic digital literacy skills were able to take advantage of mobile phones and increase their chances of participating in the labour force by 29%.


  • Access to mobile phones and the internet has been touted as a solution to bridge the gender gap in labour force participation but worrisome disparities exist in the impact technology has had.

With the successful landing of Chandrayaan 3 on the moon and the G20 Summit, India is on a roll. Both these events have been lauded by world leaders. The New Delhi Declaration by G20 leaders, the key outcome document of the summit held in the capital under India’s presidency, featured various policy aspirations that are important for all 20 economies. One specific focus was on enhancing the economic empowerment of women and achieving what was earlier described as the “25 by 25" goal. Set under the Australian presidency at the Brisbane summit in 2014, this was a key contribution to the G20 agenda: An aim to reduce the gender gap in the labour force participation rate by 25% by the year 2025 (compared to 2012). We are less than two years away from that point, and so this should serve as a good time to take stock of statistics on female labour force participation. Just how much progress has been made?

According to the International Labour Organization, the gender gap in the labour force participation rate in the age group of 25–54 years was 29.2 percentage points in 2022, globally, with female participation at 61.4% and the male rate at 90.6%. While the gender gap in labour force participation has witnessed a decline from 2014 to 2021, the gap has begun to widen again lately. Governments and organizations across the world need to look at policies that could reduce this gap and help reach the ‘25 by 25’ goal within its intended timeframe.

India offers a very interesting picture. The female labour force participation rate in India was 17.5% in 2017-18, which increased to 25.1% in 2020-21. Further, our gender gap in labour force participation has seen a decline from 38 percentage points in 2017-18 to 32 percentage points is 2020-21. The New Delhi Declaration laid emphasis on bridging the digital gender divide, touting the expansion of digital infrastructure as a means to reduce that gender gap in the labour force. On one hand, the power of the internet and mobile phone offers multiple advantages that can enable positive labour market outcomes. It increases awareness of jobs, provides a medium for the digital transaction of wages and allows communication at the workplace. It also allows work flexibility for mothers who wish to spend time raising their children and also hold paid jobs, at least part-time. On the other hand, access to the internet through hand-held devices could also have a negative effect on labour market outcomes through increased time spent on leisure activities; it could result in high consumption of social media, online gaming and other addictive fare, which could possibly lead to a lower motivation to participate in the labour market. Empirical evidence of digital access promoting better labour outcomes for women remains elusive.

For policymaking to be efficient and effective, however, it is necessary that empirical evidence is presented on the impact of digital infrastructure on the labour market, particularly in terms of catalysing labour participation among women. This will help identify potential barriers that can be addressed. Within India, urban cohorts of workers would be the best placed to benefit from access to digital infrastructure. Internet penetration in urban India is close to 70% in 2023. The services sector accounts for the largest share in total urban employment, and it could surely leverage the use of mobile phones linked to the internet to boost labour participation among women.

Using recently released data from the National Sample Survey, we estimate that exclusive access to a mobile phone increases the probability of a woman’s participation in the labour force by 16% in urban India. We also find that internet connectivity further enhances their chance of participation, increasing this probability by 23%.

On analysing relationships across different demographics, we notice that the effect is stronger for women in higher income households, those in the age group of 30-64 years, and among those who do not have any children. Remarkably, exclusive access to a mobile phone and the internet acts as an enabler for married women to join the labour force by improving their access to financial services and new entrepreneurial opportunities, even as it affords them added security.

However, there is significant inequality across caste groups in internet-linked mobile phones enhancing the labour force participation of women. We find that only women of upper-caste backgrounds are able to leverage the exclusive use of mobile phones to enhance their labour force participation, while this effect is largely absent across all other caste groups.

Our analysis also discovered the importance of digital literacy in helping women use digital devices better to join the labour market. For instance, women with basic digital literacy skills were able to take advantage of mobile phones and increase their chances of participating in the labour force by 29%. However, lack of basic digital literacy meant that women in general were not fully able to leverage the benefits of digital inclusion through mobile phone or internet access.

This sobering outcome presents policymakers with a practical policy challenge. Efforts must be made on all fronts for India’s digital infrastructure growth to turn the economy more gender inclusive.

Catch all the Elections News, Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.


Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App