IntersectionalityGender Female Labour Force Participation: Reasons For Stagnation And Corrective Policy Measures

Female Labour Force Participation: Reasons For Stagnation And Corrective Policy Measures

Sexual division of labour, which forces women to be engaged disproportionately in household work, weakens labour market options for them.
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In Siliguri, West Bengal, ‘Ayahs,’ (nursemaids) working in a multispecialty hospital often complain about their lack of entitlement to employment benefits. This is because their work is classified as ‘informal,’ leaving them excluded from benefits, as opposed to ‘formal,’ workers within the same institution. Yet, this issue extends beyond these Ayahs, reflecting the pain of countless Indian women engaged in economic activity.

In a nation like India which is characterised by strict gender norms, the cultures and practices benefit one sex at the cost of the other. What is interesting is that such gender-based norms not only breed social discrimination but also have complicated economic consequences. Today, India faces a strange contradiction: despite its economic growth indicated by rising GDPs, there’s a stagnation in the female labour force participation rate.

The female labour force participation rate and its importance

The Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) is a measure of the proportion of a country’s working-age population that engages actively in the labour market, either by working or looking for work. According to the World Bank, India’s FLFPR has increased by a meagre 5 per cent during the generational gap between 1991 (27.8 per cent) and 2023 (32.7 per cent).

Increasing FLFPR becomes important for both the economic and social progress of a nation. A research paper titled “Women and Work in India: Descriptive Evidence and a Review of Potential Policies” points out that a 10 per cent increase in the female-to-male ratio of workers would increase the per capita net domestic product of a country by 8 per cent.

Moreover, increased FLFPR also has substantial social outcomes for women as wage work delays the age of marriage and age at first childbirth, increases women’s decision-making power in the household, and increases the schooling years of their children.

 Factors behind the stagnant female labour force participation rate

A graph of different colored bars reflecting on labour force participation
Source: IWWAGE (2015)

Multiple factors affect the participation of women in the Indian economy. In the figure above, it can be seen that when compared to men, women both in rural and urban regions and across caste groups see very low participation in economic activity.

The data compels us to look at the interplay of various factors that form the root cause of low participation of women, irrespective of their social and economic backgrounds. The following can be the factors at play: 

The State and its lack of women-centric laws: First, the Indian Labor Laws, which have changed many times since before India became independent, do not cover the informal sector where almost 90 per cent of women work. This means that women working in the informal sector do not have job security or social security benefits.

Second, in 1991, India made it easier to trade internationally, which lowered tariffs, especially for large companies. This meant that employees had to work longer hours and needed more skills to meet the higher production demand created as a result of the opening up of the economy. This practice worked against women as they didn’t have the required skills. Further, The Factories Act 1948, prohibited women from working at night and limited their working hours. This made companies less likely to hire women post the reform period.

The Market and its discriminatory practices: While women cross multiple barriers to become part of the economic process, the market practices have been discriminatory for Indian women. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, Indian men earn 82 per cent of the labour income while Indian women earn 18 per cent for the same work. This reflects a glaring pay gap. Further, women prefer regular part-time jobs which allow them to keep a work-life balance to aid in household responsibilities. A lack of such jobs often pushes women out of the workforce. 

The Household and its prejudices against women: Indian households are the centre point of the emergence and continuation of prejudice against women. According to an IndiaSpend study, women on average spend six hours of their day on domestic chores as compared to men who spend less than an hour on the same. The sexual division of labour, which forces women to be engaged disproportionately in household work, weakens labour market opportunities for women. Gendered labour, which Nivedita Menon calls “a unit of inequality,” is deployed so that women continue to depend on their families for sustenance.

Policy solutions to increase FLFPR

Expanding the ambit of labour laws: Shraddha Chigateri in her work on labour laws in India discusses how most laws look at a “Standard Employment Relationship” to extend the benefits of labour rights and protections. This implies that only those workers who are engaged in “continuous, full-time employment, and in a clear employer-employee relationship” are included within the ambit of labour laws in India.

 an illustration with an old woman and young woman sitting on floor and two men standing beside female reflecting  labour force participation

More than 90 per cent of women in India are currently working in the informal sector where the nature of their relationship with the owner is not clearly defined. Extending the benefits under labour laws to the informal sector would enable women to retain themselves in the sector. It will also make the informal sector an attractive option to those women currently out of the workforce since it is easier for women to find jobs in the informal sector. This would lead to an increase in the overall FLFPR. The expansion of labour laws should also include a provision for unpaid care work undertaken by women in the households.

Vocational training: Both formal and informal vocational training have a positive impact on the FLFPR. Acquiring various skills through training increases employability and instances of self-employment among women. Vocational training also has a direct effect on the ‘U’ shaped relationship between education and FLFPR. This means that women with any kind of vocational training contribute to increasing FLFP irrespective of their educational levels.

Providing vocational training to women is well recognised by the Indian government. It is reflected in various government schemes which started as early as the 1950s-60s. These were more recently combined in programs such as Skill India or the flagship Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana.

Additionally, the New Education Policy 2020 has talked intensively about including vocational training as part of school curricula. As discussed above, most Indian women are engaged in sectors that are not highly remunerative and usually require unskilled labour. As India plans to move towards service-based jobs, women must learn technical skills to thrive in the digital world.

Here, it becomes important to acknowledge certain challenges associated with promoting vocational training for women. There exists a gender gap even within the vocational training rates with men outnumbering women in both formal and informal training. This would require the formulation of programs and setting up of training institutes that specifically cater to the needs of women while constantly monitoring the outcomes of such training provided.

Changing market norms to work for women: A Report by the Observer Research Foundation focuses on the need for innovative policies that will enable women to not only join but retain themselves in the market. To achieve this, a multi-faceted approach is needed.

Firstly, for childbearing working mothers, it should include incentivising the sharing of childcare responsibilities between both partners. Development of an enabling environment for women, such as the presence of creches at the workplace as was recently done by Urban Company, is a step in the right direction.

Further, Work-From-Home, popularised by the COVID-19 pandemic, can be utilised, and combined with maternal leaves. This would allow women to work at their own pace along with tending to the child’s needs.

Secondly, while laws like the “Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2013” exist, there is a need to create awareness about the law, among both employers and employees. This can be achieved by conducting sensitisation workshops at the workplace. Furthermore, as the landscape of employment continues to evolve with the emergence of flexible work arrangements such as freelancing and gig opportunities, it becomes imperative to extend the benefits of such initiatives across all sectors.

Thirdly, there is a need to address the unequal wage gap which demotivates women willing to join the workforce. AlthoughThe Equal Remunerations Act 1976,” requires the payment of equal wages for equal work, the law must be amended to include regular social audits of the hiring organisations to maintain a system of checks and balances. 

Recognising the reasons for the stagnation of Female Labour Force Participation in India and proposing solutions is important. The Global Gender Gap (2023) report reveals that it will take 131 years to achieve full gender equality worldwide. It breaks down the gender gap into four areas, with economic participation and opportunity standing out as crucial. This emphasises the importance of addressing inequalities in the economic participation of women to ensure their empowerment not only in India but globally. 

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