The gender ladder to socio-economic transformation

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The gender ladder to socio-economic transformation

More than a ‘more jobs’ approach, addressing structural issues which keep women away from the workforce is a must


The issue

  • If more women did paid work, India’s national income would rise dramatically. One estimate is that GDP would go up by 20% if women matched men in workforce participation.
  • The worrying trend is exactly the reverse. The share of women in India’s workforce has fallen dramatically— from about 35% to 25% since 2004. The fall is even sharper if you look at women in the age group of 15-24.

What data show

  • Currently, the participation of women in the workforce in India is one of the lowest globally.
    • According to a report of the International Labour Organization, India’s female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India fell from 31.2% in 2011-2012 to 23.3% in 2017-2018.
    • It has fallen for other age groups as well. For female wage workers, as against self-employed or casual workers, the participation rate is in single digits.
    • By comparison, the female LFPR in Sweden is 88%.
  • This decline has been sharper in rural areas, where the female LFPR fell by more than 11 percentage points in 2017-2018.
  • The sharp decline of female LFPR since 2004 is all the more surprising because this was a period of high GDP and employment growth. This should have increased the presence of women in the workforce.
  • Under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), launched in 2005, women’s participation is almost 50%—a positive feature of the programme. Yet, the overall female LFPR is falling.


  • Social scientists have long tried to explain this phenomenon, more so in the context of rising levels of education for women.
  • The answers can be found in a complex set of factors including low social acceptability of women working outside the household, lack of access to safe and secure workspaces, widespread prevalence of poor and unequal wages, and a dearth of decent and suitable jobs.
  • Most women in India are engaged in subsistence-level work in agriculture in rural areas, and in low-paying jobs such as domestic service and petty home-based manufacturing in urban areas.
  • But with better education, women are refusing to do casual wage labour or work in family farms and enterprises.

Education and work

  • In the case of younger women, this falling trend could be due to higher levels of school and college attendance, correlated with an increase in family incomes.
    • A recent study observed a strong negative relationship between a woman’s education level and her participation in agricultural and non-agricultural wage work and in family farms.
    • Essentially, women with moderately high levels of education do not want to do manual labour outside the household which would be perceived to be below their educational qualifications.
  • The study also showed a preference among women for salaried jobs as their educational attainment increases; but such jobs remain extremely limited for women. It is estimated that among people (25 to 59 years) working as farmers, farm labourers and service workers, nearly a third are women, while the proportion of women among professionals, managers and clerical workers is only about 15% (NSSO, 2011-2012).
  • However, it is not the case that women are simply retreating from the world of work. On the contrary, time-use surveys have found that they devote a substantial amount of their time to work which is not considered as work, but an extension of their duties, and is largely unpaid.
  • The incidence and drudgery of this unpaid labour is growing. This includes unpaid care work such as childcare, elderly care, and household work such as collecting water.
    • The burden of these activities falls disproportionately on women, especially in the absence of adequately available or accessible public services.
    • It also encompasses significant chunks of women’s contribution to agriculture, animal husbandry, and non-timber forest produce on which most of the household production and consumption is based.

Recognition as farmers

  • In addition, women have strongly articulated the need to enumerate and remunerate the unpaid and underpaid work they undertake in sectors such as agriculture and fisheries.
  • Their fundamental demand is that women must be recognised as farmers in accordance with the National Policy for Farmers; this should include cultivators, agricultural labourers, pastoralists, livestock rearers, forest workers, fish-workers, and salt pan workers.
  • Thereafter, their equal rights and entitlements over land and access to inputs, credit, markets, and extension services must be ensured.
  • Women also reiterate the need to recognise and redistribute their unpaid work in the household. For this, the government must collect sex-disaggregated household level data with suitable parameters.
  • Unless policymakers correctly assess and address the structural issues which keep women from entering and staying in the workforce, promising more jobs — while a welcome step — is unlikely to lead to the socio-economic transformation India needs.

Way ahead

  • Any government which is serious about ensuring women’s economic empowerment and equal access to livelihoods must address the numerous challenges that exist along this highly gendered continuum of unpaid, underpaid and paid work.
    • A two-pronged approach must entail facilitating women’s access to decent work by providing public services, eliminating discrimination in hiring, ensuring equal and decent wages, and improving women’s security in public spaces. It must also recognise, reduce, redistribute, and remunerate women’s unpaid work.
  • The issue of wider, deeper and more meaningful participation of women not just in the workforce, but also in legislatures, police, armed forces and the judiciary, is a complex but very critical issue.
  • While lower-tier governments have achieved gender parity through reservation of legislative seats, a similar Bill for Parliament has been pending for decades.
  • As for the workforce, much needs to be done, beyond maternity benefit entitlements and other quotas. A useful and easily implementable idea would be to make women’s salary income-tax-free. That may sound radical, but it would be a bold and effective step to increasing India’s female workforce participation.


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