Well-aimed policies can enhance women’s employment

For high-skilled women, such as those working in IT, a cab or a company transport makes it hard to keep flexible timings.
For high-skilled women, such as those working in IT, a cab or a company transport makes it hard to keep flexible timings.


  • State-funded pilot projects aimed at lowering hidden barriers could help us chart a path forward. Let’s look at Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, for example.

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are two large neighbouring states in South India. Nearly 20 years ago, in 2004-05, around 57% of women in the prime age group of 25-to-54 years were in paid work in Tamil Nadu (TN) and Karnataka. Fast forward. While 44% of prime-age women in TN were employed in 2022-23, the proportion was 51% in Karnataka. This data suggests that Karnataka has done better at keeping women employed. The state overtook TN in terms of per-person real state GDP during the last decade. With its growth driven by the IT sector, one of the largest employers of educated women, it seems like Karnataka has managed to arrest women dropping out of the job market better than its neighbour. Or is that so?

Dig deeper and a different story will emerge. First, a caveat. Given small sub-samples at the state level in the Periodic Labour Force Surveys, the percentages discussed below may not be entirely representative. Yet, the comparative trends are unlikely to differ vastly.

With economic prosperity, people usually move out of agriculture and into non-farm jobs. 26% of women of prime age in TN were working in either industrial or service sectors in 2022-23. In Karnataka, it was only 21%. More than 30% of Karnataka women in this age group continued to work in the primary sector, while it was only about 18% in TN. Among women aged under 30, there is virtually no farm employment in TN (under 2%). While non-farm employment is higher in TN, joblessness among young women is also higher. A higher level of urbanization in TN has not enabled all women seeking paid work to find such jobs. Is low job creation keeping women in urban TN from paid work?

The answer is not so straightforward. Educated unemployment in the 20s in TN is also high among young men, but almost all men are in work by the time they turn 30. This suggests that rather than a lack of jobs, it is either the type of jobs or lack of enabling factors that stop people from taking up employment.

From the perspective of women, what are enabling factors? First, marriage remains universal in India and household chores and care responsibilities continue to be carried out by women, regardless of their employment status. Employed young Indian women in urban areas spend around 2 hours and 45 minutes on domestic work, based on data from a time-use survey 2019 (bit.ly/3XbTGYz). In contrast, employed young urban men spend only 30 minutes on domestic work. Women face many more trade-offs, balancing housework and paid work. They need their workplace commute to be less time consuming and more convenient, a difficult condition to meet for most.

More women than men depend on public transport and intermediate modes such as shared three-wheelers, which increases commuting time and is more tiring. Also, unsafe public transport, either as perceived or in reality, is a crucial concern for women in low-skilled occupations in Chennai. (bit.ly/3FjNwgI) In the case of high-skilled women, such as those working in IT, a shared auto is replaced by a cab or a company transport, but the former raises commuting costs and the latter makes it hard to keep flexible timings.

Second, for many women, unlike men, marriage typically involves a shift in home location, even in the same city, which could make earlier jobs hard to keep. In cities where residential areas are segregated from commercial areas, finding a suitable job near homes is not easy. Also, migrants and low-income families often settle in suburbs because they cannot afford rents in central city areas where there are more jobs.

Instead of providing a subsidy to build homes in rural areas, which is what many state governments as well as the central government do, it would be worthwhile to explore how affordable housing supply can be increased where jobs are plentiful, or if housing vouchers can be used to make rents affordable in the interim. Such policies will benefit families, and more so women.

Third, one of the big trade-offs for urban women continues to be between full-time childcare and paid work. While the Indian law mandates large companies to have a childcare facility at the workplace, this is not of much use once schooling starts. It is not practical to bring a child to a workplace facility from a school far away from the office.

Policymakers should consider a case for after-school daycare facilities on school premises. This would eliminate the need for transportation. Instead of firms funding childcare on their premises, the same money can be used to subsidize convenient childcare.

Finally, bigger long-term gains may come from making gender education a norm at the school level for everyone. It is easier to influence young minds, raise girls’ aspirations and inculcate gender equality in early phases of learning.

Tamil Nadu has historically taken a lead in promoting women’s empowerment in India. Now it could set a new example by initiating pilot projects to test some of these proposals that may help raise women employment.

It would be even better, of course, if both neighbours come together in this worthwhile cause.

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