Why India can’t afford women staying out of labour market

MSMEs face tough time post unlock in COVID-19 pandemic (MINT_PRINT)
MSMEs face tough time post unlock in COVID-19 pandemic (MINT_PRINT)


  • Our female labour force participation rate is one of the lowest in the world.

As the world hits a population milestone of 8 billion, India is all set to become the world’s most populous country in 2023, much before 2027, as predicted earlier by the United Nations Population Division. India is poised to gain a massive number of working-age individuals in the next 25 years, almost every fifth in the world. Nevertheless, given the country’s existing labour-market scenario, one wonders whether such a huge potential of human resources will really do much for the Indian economy, unless we are able to enhance women’s participation on a significant scale.

As the labour market currently stands, our female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) is one of the lowest in the world (by World Bank data). Further, it remains in declining mode, having fallen from 30.5% in 2000 to 21.1% in 2019, and 18.6% in 2020, by International Labour Organisation figures; it hit a record low of 15.5% during the first covid lockdown quarter of April-June 2020, when many urban women either quit or lost their jobs. On FLFPR, India was placed at No. 140 of 156 countries in 2021 by The Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum.

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A 2020 research study observed that a structural shift and sectoral transformation in the Indian economy (1983-2018) made no impact on the pattern of women’s employment in India, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In terms of absolute numbers, it decreased from 148.6 million in 2004-05 to 104.1 million in 2017-18. With little space for job diversification, women continued to overcrowd the agriculture sector, despite its declining share of the economy. Non-farm sectors didn’t open up many opportunities for them. Also, as 90% of working women are in the informal sector, the study noted, they are subject to high degrees of gender discrimination in wages, job and social security.

Separately, Oxfam India’s India Discrimination Report 2022 revealed that wages are lower for women overwhelmingly because of discriminatory practices and only slightly due to lack of education and work experience. In 2019-20, about 60% of men (aged 15 years and above) had either regular salaried and self-employed jobs, while only a fifth of women did. Besides, a significant number of qualified women were found unwilling to join the labour market due to ‘family responsibilities’, said the report. By an appraisal made by The Economic Survey of 2020, 60% of women in the 15-59-years age group are engaged in full-time housework, as compared to 1% of males. A Pew research disclosed that 84% of Indians subscribe to the view that in a situation of job scarcity, “men have more right to opportunities than women". A recent Bloomberg Economics analysis estimated that though Indian women represent 48% of India’s population, they contribute only around 17% of GDP, compared to 40% in China. An Asian Development Bank study said that if the participation of women were to equal that of men, India’s GDP could be 60% higher in 2025.

Several researchers have inferred that India’s trend of female labour supply doesn’t follow a U-shaped curve in keeping with the typical pattern of GDP growth and a rise in female literacy; there is a persistent demand-supply mismatch. Several cross-cutting factors like a disproportionate burden of child care, an income effect, logistical barriers of mobility and safety, and socio-cultural norms around marriage, etc, have also acted as deterrents to Indian women entering our labour market. A 2019 UNDP study said that India has so far seen only a downward trend in women’s workforce participation as their education has risen, and that combined participation (labour market and/or educational) covered only 55-60% of young working age women.

Another finding is that even though 43% of India’s Science, Technology, engineering and Math (STEM) graduates were women, only 14% of the STEM workforce is female (AISHE Report). This establishes the fact that better educational achievements have not necessarily converted to women’s sustained workforce participation.

Many Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan, China and South Korea have harnessed the benefits of a growing youth population by imparting quality education and industry-relevant skills, and offering the youth good health services. In contrast, India’s investment in human capital is abysmally poor, with 3.1% of GDP spent on education (2021-22), around 1% on health. We also have a high level of unfulfilled requirements for reproductive health services (by the National Family Health Survey of 2019-21). Only 4.7% of India’s total workforce have undergone any formal skills training (3.8% of adult women and 9.3% of adult men, by NSSO’s 68th round). Skill programmes in India also suffer from a gender bias, which reinforces our labour market imbalance. A 2014- 2018 study on Industrial Training Institute enrolment found large gender gaps. No wonder employed women are at greater risk of being displaced by automation, as a McKinsey Global Institute report cautioned.

India expects to gain eight million youth annually. Unless this human capital, particularly of women, is optimally utilized, our economy will perform worse than it can. India’s ambitious Amrit Kaal target of having half its workforce female by 2047 is at risk of remaining unrealized. To pre-empt failure, gender differentials in access to education and skill development must be removed on a priority basis, social infrastructure to relieve women from their ‘double burden’ of work should be expanded, and a ‘women-friendly’ work culture fostered.

Archana Datta is former director-general, Doordarshan and All India Radio.

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