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A mini industry has grown around trying to understand why women’s labour force participation in India has declined continuously from 33.5% in 2004 to 22.3% in 2017, according to National Sample Survey Office data. Of these, married women in the age group of 25-44 years show the largest decline (from 38.8% to 27.8%). Rural women predominantly contribute to this decline (44% to 28%). Overall, educated women’s participation declined across the board—from those with 6 years of education to those with more than 12 years education. The only bright spot is the improvement in urban women’s participation between 2011 and 2017 at all levels of education.

Economists and sociologists have offered several explanations for the decline. One is that they stay longer in education. The U-shaped hypothesis, plotting the relationship between education, wealth and female labour force participation, is expected to account for the rest. Poor and illiterate women stay in the workforce, while those who begin to gain in education and wealth drop out and rejoin the workforce at higher levels. The “income effect" part of this kicks in for married women whose households gain in wealth. Many economists attribute this to “culture"—the withdrawal of married women is linked to higher family status. Sociologists put it differently; Karin Kapadia called it “marrying money"; Srinivas called it the “status trap" and Hanna Papanek suggested that as women get educated and marry upwards, they stay at home for “status production" work, including class mobility-oriented activities.

Other scholars have attributed the drop out to the burden of domestic work and care duties. These are often called “marriage" and “motherhood" penalties. Data on how many women rejoin the workforce after dropping out due to marriage and motherhood are not easily available; what we do know is that there are hardly any facilitating provisions that enable their rejoining.

India’s Time Use Survey (2019) shows that women spend nearly 5 hours on unpaid domestic services, while men contribute just over an hour. Housework and care tasks are even more time consuming in multi-generational households. As Indians live longer, elder care is needed for longer. Since it is women and especially daughter/s-in-law who shoulder this burden, there is a greater demand for married woman to stay at home. In a study of 6,030 parents and adult children in Mumbai, Divya Mathur found that when parents arranged their son’s marriage, they selected a bride who was more likely to look after them in old age rather than be compatible with their son.

Another reason suggested for women missing from the labour force is the lack of “suitable" jobs. While educated rural youth also stay out of paid work while waiting for “suitable" jobs, “suitability" takes on other resonances for women; families prefer jobs with status and security for daughters and wives. Government and desk jobs are preferred, while private sector and field jobs are seen as posing a greater risk to women’s sexual safety and respectability. Suspicious husbands also prefer to keep their wives at home. However, a good wage often trumps many of these considerations and families are willing to look the other way while enabling daughters to undertake “risky" work in call centres, work entailing night duty, or unprotected travel.

The above explanations, however, fail to explain why the better educated married women in the age group 25-45 go missing from the workforce in high numbers. In a 1999 article, Behrman et al suggested that the “returns" to “home production" for educated women were higher, which is why they choose not to enter the labour force. It is well known that educated women’s role in fostering children’s human capital through proper upbringing—supervision of schoolwork, ensuring children’s health and nutrition—raises their value in the marriage market and at home.

What these explanations do not, however, point out is that investment of educated mothers’ time and labour in children’s success in market-linked education is oriented to “family mobility" strategies. Together with shaping the family size and sex composition (fewer children and more boys), educated women’s “concerted cultivation" (a phrase coined by sociologist Annette Lareau) of children for a competitive world is a mobility strategy that demands that women expend their efforts at home. Behrman et al showed that post the Green Revolution, more educated women’s children studied for longer hours. Similarly, India’s 2019 Time Use Survey finds that women spend nearly twice the amount of time in childcare and instruction activities than males. In a forthcoming paper, I show that many graduate and post-graduate women stay home to concentrate on preparing their children for competitive exams and professional courses. Many mothers routinely accompany their children to Kota or other hubs of coaching centres, and many working women in government service take the so-called two-year “childcare leave" during children’s class 10 and 12 exams. Thus, it is the social goal of family mobility that seems to be the driving factor for educated married women staying out of the labour force.

Ravinder Kaur is professor of sociology and social anthropology, IIT Delhi

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