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The curious case of vanishing women from India’s workforce

सौरभ राय & Vidya Bhandarkar
30th Jan 2018
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With India ranked 121st out of 131 countries in female workforce participation, ensuring the presence of more women in the workforce may kick-start growth in the currently stagnating Indian economy.

In a recent discussion on poverty and inequality in India, Gita Sen, Professor and Director at the Public Health Foundation of India, described female workforce participation as the “Miner’s Canary” for the economic health of a nation. Miner’s Canary is the proverbial caged bird whose death is an early warning for poisonous gases in a mine. This should raise an alarms, given that India is ranked 121st out of 131 countries in Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) by a World Bank Report.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is the fact that FLFP in India dropped from 34.8 percent to 27 percent between 1993 and 2013 - two decades that saw relatively stable economic growth in the country. To put things in context, China’s FLFP figure in 2013 was at 63.9 percent, while Nepal’s was at 79.9 percent. More recent reports indicate that the trend continues well into 2017 as more women in India continue to drop out of the workforce.

Women get a raw deal

The reasons that have kept women out of work are varied and complex. On the positive side, more women in the working age group are now enrolling into secondary and higher education. According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, women enrolment into higher education has gone up from 7.5 percent in 2002-03 to 20 percent in 2012-13. Increasing wages of the male member of the family is another reason why women are choosing to drop out of work.

However, there are more worrying reasons that have kept FLFP figures historically low in India. These can be attributed largely to the dominant patriarchal attitudes and narratives in the Indian society. There is often a “shame” associated with women stepping out of home for a job, in many parts of the country. In order to work, women are often required to obtain the approval of men in the family - father, husband, brothers. For a lot of women, marriage, childbirth or the burden of household work (largely borne by women in India) culminates in the end of their work lives. This keeps many well-educated and employable women out of the workforce.

Lack of basic infrastructure like safe, frequent, and last-mile public transport options; safe and accessible public spaces; and lack of hostels and crèche facilities for children limit the job options available for women. Workplaces in India can also be hostile to women, with high incidents of sexual harassment, discrimination, low pay, and wage disparity. GV Krishnagopal, founder of ALC India, says,

"The primary sector is not aspirational to continue anymore, because jobs like agriculture, weaving, and forestry are not enough to secure our livelihood. Men tend to migrate and work in cities, leaving primary work for women, whose value continues to diminish. Unless the government operationalises and makes the primary sector secure, things will not change."

In addition, women in the workforce tend to be concentrated in certain areas like the beauty and care-giving sectors, and are absent from the high growth sectors like telecom, IT and banking. As more men tap into these jobs, the number of women in the workforce continues to be low.

Missing the opportunity

Besides the fact that working women can invest in their own health and education better, there are ample reports that indicate that more women in the workforce is good for the economy at large. Statistics suggest that India will be unable to take advantage of its current stage of “demographic dividend”, with a high share of working population, if women stay out of jobs.

Rajesh Agarwal, Joint secretary and CVO at Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) said, "India can increase its GDP by 16 per cent if it achieves gender parity in its workforce. There is a need to make a conscious effort to address women issues and Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship is mindful of this fact."

Employing women leads to cascading effects in creation of more jobs. As more women go to work and as their incomes rise, more jobs are created in the economy. A working woman is more likely to hire a household help or cook. Estimates suggest that every employed woman generates employment for 1.3 more people.

Policy changes and budget support needed

In India, education does not arm one with the skills required to take up a job. Under the Skill India programmes, there can be more initiatives aimed at skilling women for diverse vocations. As most women do not migrate in search of jobs, jobs can be created in Tier II and III cities. Safe and accessible public transport and safe public spaces should be provided to enable women to travel for work, thus opening up more opportunities.

"As per the information furnished by the respective State Governments, there are about 405 Women ITIs and 1003 Women Wings in general ITIs/ITCs having a total of 83,270 training seats as on June, 2017," said Rajesh.

"Last year, we have had around 1.34 lakh women train from our ITIs. There are great examples of women who have also been trained in hard skills like welding etc. We are also focusing on promoting skill development in local trades, art and culture where more rural women can participate and will not have to migrate," he added.

There is also a dire need to increase the government-run anganwadis, which will enable women to return to work after childbirth. The government must take larger strides towards adopting a more women-friendly maternity policy. While the extension of maternity leave to six months is a positive step, an extension of paternity leave can be looked at, to encourage men to participate in child rearing and enabling women to return to work.

“The government has to make the primary sector sustainable. Once people are incentivised to produce, women get employed automatically. The solution also lies in collectivising women, because none of these problems can be solved by individuals alone. The government is working on the SHG model, but the potential is much more,” says Krishnagopal.

Companies can be incentivised to hire a more diverse workforce, through provision of tax exemptions. If companies have more than a certain number of women employees, they can be mandated to provide crèche facilities. The current GST of 18 percent on day care services has to be done away with. There are also suggestions for bolder initiatives like doing away with personal income tax for women to incentivise more women to join the workforce.

A higher participation of women in the workforce may kick-start growth in the currently stagnating Indian economy. As women’s participation in the Indian workforce falls, the Miner’s Canary needs to be saved before it is too late.

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