According to the World Bank, India currently ranks among the bottom 15 countries in terms of its Female Labour/Workforce Participation (FLFP) rate which stands at 20.3% of the total working population. The FLFP rate which measures the involvement of women in the economy has been steadily declining since 2005 despite the nation’s expanding economy and significant improvement in the human development indexes like the decline in illiteracy rate, gender education gap, etc. This puzzle of women’s withdrawal from the labour market even in the face of better prospects has been a point of research for several years now.
Part of the answer is the often quoted ‘U-shaped’ hypothesis proposed by Claudia Goldin in 1994 which links the female labour force function curve to structural shifts in the economy, the influence of income and substitution effect, and rising education levels in the population. Women’s employment in patriarchal societies is largely distress-driven, i.e. it is often a response to declining household income. Thus, when the market expands and household income increases women tend to withdraw from the labour force initially lowering the FLFP rate. Goldin’s hypothesis contends that over time this is set right by the trade-off between education and employment. As education levels improve, women are able to join the labour force marking the recovery of the FLFP rate with an upward slope.
While there has been significant improvement in attaining gender parity in the enrolment rates of primary, secondary, and tertiary education, it has not translated into a proportionate increase in women’s economic participation. Further analysis reveals that the combined participation rates (labour-market and/or educational participation) of young women (15-24 years) stands at only 55-60%, failing to explain why 40-45% of the young female population is still out of the workforce (Andres et al. 2017).
Another explanation is the structural shift in the Indian economy and the increasing mechanisation of the agricultural sector. Business Standard reported in 2019 that while 73.2% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, only 12.8% own landholdings. Owing to skewed power relations, and lack of equal access to land ownership, women exercise little control and are largely involved in labour-intensive (and non-mechanised) farm activities like sowing, winnowing, and harvesting. Therefore, the growing adoption of new technology like seed drillers, harvesters, and threshers, has disproportionately dislocated female farm labourers.
Prevalent societal prejudices that consider women incapable of working with complex machinery combined with a lack of vocational training facilities have kept women out of industrial work floors. When they are employed, it is often under extremely exploitative working environments where they are paid a fraction of the minimum wage without any social security benefits. Moreover, various barriers to migration like societal pressures, lack of information, lack of easy access to public transport, and lack of affordable accommodation such as hostels for working women, etc. make it difficult for women to move in search of employment opportunities as compared to men.
A recent Global Attitudes Survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that 79% of respondents in India agreed that men had more right to employment when jobs were scarce. Social norms pertaining to gender-based labour division are so pervasive that women predominantly work out of necessity rather than by choice. In 2018, the International Labour Organisation reported that women in India spent 312 minutes/day (urban) and 291 minutes/day (rural) on unpaid care work while men correspondingly spent only 29 minutes (urban) and 32 minutes (rural) on the same.
Developing upon this, Oxfam India’s Inequality Report (2020) titled, On Women’s Backs explores the relationship between unpaid care work and violence against women and girls. It notes that “Women consequently suffer from extreme forms of income and time poverty affecting their health and emotional well-being and circumscribing their aspirations for education and paid work.” Rooted in regressive and patriarchal social norms, this burden of excessive unpaid care work not only violates women’s fundamental right to equal opportunity and liberty but has far-reaching implications on the labour market as well.
The internalisation of these biologically deterministic ideas of gender and labour curtails work opportunities for women by segregating fields of work as ‘suitable’ for different genders. When men’s work is viewed as ‘hard work’ and women’s work is reduced as inconsequential, the market invisiblises and undervalues their labour by assigning them significantly lower wages than men. This becomes pivotal to understanding how the ongoing pandemic has aggravated the many challenges faced by women. It has exposed the widening socio-economic inequities that leave women vulnerable in matters of health, economic empowerment, security, and education.
Working women across rural and urban quarters have had to bear the inordinate burden of domestic care work which has severely affected their work lives. Multiple news reports have pointed out that in the absence of support systems like babysitters, daycare services, hired house-helps, many women in urban India have had to make the compromise of losing their jobs and falling behind in their careers in order to manage the household. Women in rural India who work as labourers, depend on collectives like SHGs, have been hit hard by the dearth of resources and savings, inaccessibility to market, etc.
At the same time, a large number of women who are engaged as domestic, social, healthcare, and sanitation workers, have consistently been on the frontline despite facing a paucity of incentives, transportation facilities, personal protection equipment, and resting opportunities. Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), Auxiliary Nurse and Midwives (ANM), and Anganwadi Workers (AWW) have borne the double brunt of the COVID-related responsibilities and their regular maternal and childcare duties. Operating in this cycle of poor wages and working conditions, the informal sector that employs a vast majority of women will be further prone to exploitative working conditions, rampant discrimination, and harassment.
A gender-sensitive approach thus becomes imperative to policy interventions in order to ensure the sustenance and growth of working women in the country. Here are a few suggestions made by scholars and researchers regarding the same:
- The first step is to reduce the back-breaking workload on women. The Oxfam report suggests that ensuring the provision of public amenities like water, gas stoves, toilets, and services like sanitation, safe and accessible transport, childcare, etc will contribute significantly in helping women realize their right to rest and leisure, and boost equal participation in the labour market.
- Expanding public investment in paid care work: Ensuring better working conditions and fair remuneration to women under programs like ASHA, AWW, and ANM. Expanding these programs to reach global norms of care facilities.
- Research reflects that policy interventions such as direct cash transfers have significantly improved the beneficiaries’ access to money. Thus, delinking social security protections from the employer and rather transferring the benefits directly to the individual can help include those in the informal sector and the emerging gig economy.
- Gender sensitisation and behaviour-change strategies especially targeting the redistribution of care work to help promote gender-equal norms between men and women. Initiating large-scale public campaigns promoting progressive models of masculinity and femininity that focus on de-gendered labour within and outside the household.
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