The perception of gender inequality in India is not a paranoid reaction to rape cases and molestation but a very stark economic reality as well. The Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) rate for India remains abysmally low at around 27 % when the male labour force participation rate is 79.9%. The surprising part is that FLFP was 33.9 % in 2005 and has declined ever since. Clearly, the economic progress in India has not permeated to women, at least when you use FLFP as a proxy for women’s economic progress.

What is more astounding is that the FLFP for a country with similarly large population – China­– is 64% and for the USA, a democracy like India, is 56.3%. One may argue that they are high-income countries, with Chinas GDP per capita (PPP) being double that of Indias and USA’s GDP per capita (PPP) being three times that of India. However, if you look at the FLFP for Lower Middle-Income group countries (Lower-middle-income economies are those in which 2014 GNI per capita was between $1,046 and $4,125 ) – the category in which India falls– the FLFP is 38.8.%, more than 10% points higher than it is in India, thus putting India at the bottom among peers as well.

Figure: Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) across countries and Male Labour Force Participation (MLFP) for India 

Interestingly, the FLFP in low-income countries (Low-income economies are those in which 2014 GNI per capita was $1,045 or less) is 72%, implying that economic necessity will win over societal restrictions and conditioning, and women will work to support their families.

According to the Economic Survey done by India (2015-16) overall labour force participation rate in general is higher in rural areas (54.7%) than in urban areas (47.2%). Moreover, 57% of employment, during the 2015-16 financial year, given under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) scheme in India, was to women. This further signifies a trend of increasing rural FLFP.However, there is no denying the fact the FLFP for India remains a point of contention, and economic and societal progress both remain linked to the number of women in the workforce.

There is some research which has discussed why the FLFP remains so low. Some of the factors are listed below:

  1. The gap in education between men and women is one of the obvious reasons. According to the 2011 census, the female literacy rate was 65.4% compared to the male literacy rate of 82.14%.
  2. With rising household income, it is considered unnecessary for women to work, and participation rates start to taper off. Further, childcare and household responsibilities are considered the primary responsibility of women, and thus their work might be the most dispensable in a family setting.
  3. In India, the gender pay gap is 25%. This means that women make 25% less than what men make for the same work. This could also be a strong normative disincentive for women to enter the work force. If you are not going to earn well anyway, what is the point of going out and working, particularly when you could be using that time for tending to children or doing household chores – a responsibility which falls on the shoulder of women inordinately than it does on men.
  4. Further, male education has a negative effect on FLFP – for every extra year of male education, there is a drop observed in female labour force participation by 1%. This effect is more than the positive effect of female education on FLFP. This could be due to the fact that increasing male education legitimises the need for women dropping out of the work force, not only within the family (since the male is likely to be more educated) but also on the demand side – gender inequality in the society would affect hiring and bias people towards educated men than equally competent women.
  5. The social norms in the society also have a direct impact on the FLFP. Ideas like women should not work after marriage, or not come back home late at night, are just a few examples of how restrictions may be influencing the FLFP.

Bright Side but with Caveats

The gross enrolment ratio in higher education as per the MHRD figures is 21.6% for males and 18.9% for females. Some other positive developments here would be that the % of women enrolled in commerce at the undergraduate level is the almost the same as men – around 14.70% and 14.28% respectively. In science and arts though female enrolment overtakes that of men – by almost 3% and 7% respectively.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development has various schemes for child development which encompasses education as well as women development. However, policy measures alone will not help us increase female participation in the workforce. This has to be a collective societal effort – a revolution of sorts – whereby economic independence for women should be sought out and encouraged actively. However, in a country where sex-selective abortions are a grappling issue – talking about women employment is quite the leap of faith. Various social interventions, aided by government support – not as schemes or policy – can work better than other forms of incentivising. Normalising conversations around women’s work – and earning capacity than focusing on marriage, for instance. is one way of doing so. All disparate elements of the society – from mainstream media – such as new channels, talk shows, soap operas to writers of copy for ads, script writers and writers of literature in all regional languages, to begin with, must shoulder this collective responsibility together.

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