Weekly Insights and Analysis

Where Are India’s Working Women?

March 9, 2016

By Mandakini Devasher Surie

India is one of the youngest countries in the world, with a significant segment of its 1.2 billion population in the age group of 20-35. By 2020, it is estimated that the average age in the country will be 29. For an economy that is growing at an annual rate of 7 percent, this “demographic dividend,” if effectively mobilized, could transform the country and accelerate its development significantly. As this growth brings more jobs in exciting new sectors, why then are India’s women being largely bypassed by the boom?

Men at train station in India

Despite the fact that female literacy and education enrollment rates have been rising, India ranks 127th on the gender inequality index and 108th on the global gender gap index. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Despite the fact that female literacy and education enrollment rates have been rising, India today has lower levels of women’s workforce participation than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. India ranks 127th on the gender inequality index and 108th on the global gender gap index. This is borne out by data on the ground. Over the last decade, women’s participation in the labor force has seen a dramatic decline. Latest government statistics suggest that women’s labor participation rate fell from 29.4 percent in 2004-2005 to 22.5 percent in 2011-2012. The gender gap in the labor force is particularly stark when we consider that in the 15-59 age group, women’s participation is only 32 percent in rural areas compared to 83 percent for men, and 21 percent in urban areas compared to 81 percent for men.

Not only is there a huge gender gap in terms of employment in the labor force, but also in the kinds of work women are engaged in. A large segment of India’s working women continue to be engaged in rural agricultural activities. While the country is still largely an agrarian economy, conventional wisdom says that with a growing economy, urbanization, and industrial development, more women should be entering the workforce and into more productive sectors such as manufacturing and services. But this is not the case. The big question is why?

One of the biggest barriers that prevents women from engaging in India’s labor market is societal. While parents in both rural and urban India are increasingly willing to invest in educating their daughters, the idea of women working outside the home is still culturally hard to digest. The social identification of “family honor,” deeply entrenched ideas about gender roles, and concerns around the social implications of women’s economic empowerment have further ossified patriarchal attitudes that intrinsically believe that the safest space for a woman is at home.

For those women who are able to overcome such societal barriers, structural constraints make it difficult for them them to break into better paying and more stable jobs. Data suggests that women in India are largely employed in the informal, semi-or unskilled sector such as domestic work, where incomes are low and there are limited benefits or job security. According to the ILO, in 2011-12, while 62.8 percent of women were employed in the agriculture sector, only 20 percent were employed in industry and 17 percent in the services sectors.

In urban areas, where education and income levels are higher, many married women drop out of the workforce when they have children. A survey of 1,000 working women in New Delhi found that only 18-34 percent of women continued to work after having a child. This is in large part because women in India continue to shoulder the burden of childcare at the same time that many employers fail to provide adequate maternity and childcare support to working mothers.

Growing concerns around the safety of women is also a clear deterrent to women’s employment. High profile incidents such as the 2014 gang rape of a young medical student in New Delhi, and increasing reports of sexual assault and violence in urban areas, have fuelled the public perception that working women in cities are at risk and fortified existing gender stereotypes. In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, a survey of 2,500 women across a number of Indian cities found that 82 percent of women reported leaving work early or before dark to ensure their safety.

Gender inequality in the workplace has a negative impact on women, and it also significantly impacts how economies and countries grow. A recent McKinsey report shows that by bridging the gender gap in the labor force, India stands to gain as much as 2.9 trillion of additional annual GDP in 2050. Along with education, bringing more women into the workforce is also the most effective way to address patriarchal norms and address issues of gender discrimination and violence that are prevalent in Indian society.

Greater policy focus is required to ensure women are able to benefit from the remarkable growth that has occurred over the last decade in India. This means policymakers will need to take more effective measures to support women’s constructive engagement in the workforce through greater investments in secondary and tertiary education, vocational and skills training, and developing and strengthening laws and policies to support working women. If India is to become the world’s third largest economy in 2030, it can’t afford to continue bypassing its over 600 million women from equal opportunity in the workforce.

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

1 Comment

  1. A brief and simple article which is to the point!
    Thank you for the post 🙂


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In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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