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South and east India offer more jobs for women

  • Women in regular non-farm jobs account for less than a fifth of the regular workforce
  • In the south and in several parts of the east, the shares of women in regular non-farm jobs are significantly higher

New Delhi: India’s Union minister for human resource development, Prakash Javadekar, stirred up a controversy last week with his remarks on women remaining outside the labour force out of ‘choice’ .

India’s official jobs survey, conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in 2011-12 indeed showed a sharp drop in the female labour force participation rate compared with the mid-2000s. However, it is worth noting that the decline was largely concentrated in rural parts of the country, and seems to have been led primarily by agricultural workers.

Research by labour economist Jayan Jose Thomas showed that the decline in female agricultural labour force between 2004-05 and 2009-10 followed a sharp rise in female agricultural labour force between 1999-00 and 2004-05, a period of agricultural distress. Thomas has argued that the decline in female agricultural labour force in the subsequent period was caused by an improvement in rural wages and living conditions, leading to withdrawal of women from the workforce. Indeed, between 1999-2000 and 2011-12, the change in India’s female labour force participation rate is small. Census data also corroborates this. Between 2001 and 2011, the share of women in the labour force has remained roughly the same, with women accounting for one-third of the overall labour force. Thus, barring the fluctuations in the agricultural sector, women’s participation in the economy has been relatively steady.

In fact, the share of women workers in regular jobs has grown marginally over the past decade, census data shows. Nonetheless, women’s overall participation rates in India’s labour market have remained low compared to the rest of the world for the past two decades.

How far this reflects ‘choice’ is a matter of debate given that such ‘choices’ are often driven by societal notions about women’s role in society. A 2016 survey on social attitudes found that a significant share of men and women cutting across the rural-urban divide feel that married women whose husbands earn a good living should not work outside the home.

Also, even if society has become more accepting of working women today, the balance of work at home remains tilted against the modern Indian woman, making it harder for her to get a job even if they may be working (at home) all the time. Yet, as with everything else in the country, there are sharp variations in women’s participation in the labour market across India.

Nationally, women in regular non-farm jobs account for less than one-fifth (19%) of the regular workforce and less than one-tenth (9%) of the overall workforce. But in the south and in several parts of the east (including the Northeast), the shares of women in regular non-farm jobs are significantly higher.

These parts of the country also saw a greater increase in the share of women in regular non-farm jobs. (charts 1a and 1b) Among states, Manipur (33.3%), Mizoram (33%), and Meghalaya (31.7%) have the highest share of women in regular non-farm jobs.


Among large states (with 10 million plus population), Tamil Nadu (25%), Karnataka (24.5%) and Andhra Pradesh (23.8%) have more women in regular non-farm jobs than others. One reason why the share of women workers is relatively low in India is the relatively small size of its manufacturing sector. In large parts of Southeast Asia and even in neighbouring Bangladesh, the growth of manufacturing fuelled women’s participation in the labour market, improving a range of gender-related outcomes.

In India, manufacturing growth has been relatively lower, and in parts of the country where manufacturing has grown rapidly, the impact on jobs has been mixed. While manufacturing has indeed raised women’s participation in the workforce in the industrial belts of south India, in the northwestern belts, the effect has been relatively muted (charts 2a and 2b).

It is worth noting that parts of the country with relatively better sex ratios and higher female literacy also tend to have on an average more women workers, suggesting that deep cultural norms may be at work to deny women the same opportunities as men.

Occupational segregation tends to diminish opportunities for women even more. Women tend to be concentrated in a few sectors, such as education and healthcare, and miscellaneous services, far more than men. (chart 3)



Although the farm sector is the biggest employer of both men and women, among non-farm sectors, education and healthcare is the biggest employer for women. In several districts of the country, this sector is the largest employer of women. In contrast, in no district of the country, this sector leads in the employment of men.

sriharsha.d@livemint.com

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