Though we may see more and more women in the public sphere, the reality is that they are still a very small percentage of the workforce in India.

A new World Bank Paper on the patterns of labour force participation in India has found that female labour force participation has dropped by 19.6 million women from 2004-05 to 2011-12. While female labour force participation in 93-94 was 42.6 per cent, in 2011-12, it was 31.2 per cent.

Surprisingly, the study shows that as income stability in a household increases, female family members in a household choose to drop out of the labour force.

Here are the key takeaways from the paper:

1. India has one of the lowest female labour force participation (FLFP) rates in the world. The ILO ranks India’s FLFP as 121 out of 131 countries.

2. 53 per cent of the drop in labour force participation occurred in the rural areas, among the age groups of 15 to 24 years.

3. Most of the drop has occurred during the period between 2004-05 to 2011-12, again due to a drop in rural labour participation.

4. The study finds that the decline in FLFP for females between 15 and 24 years old could be because of an increase in female enrolment in education.

5. But possessing intermediate levels of education, i.e. secondary and higher secondary levels of education were not found to be an incentive for women to participate in the labour market.

In both rural and urban India, illiterate women with low levels of education participate more in the labour market. Women with intermediate levels of education withdraw from the labour market, while women with very high levels of education enter the labour market.

6. What’s more is that the FLFP rate has declined across all levels of education from illiterates to college graduates. The groups which initially held the highest participation rates — illiterates and college graduates — are in fact the ones that experienced the largest drops in FLFP.

7. The FLFP rate of married women was higher than that of unmarried women in rural areas across all time periods.

An opposite trend was seen in the urban areas, where unmarried women participated more in the labour force than married women.

But the study says that the gap remains consistent over time, and marital status therefore does not explain the drop.

8. Upper caste females experienced the lowest drop, while scheduled tribes experienced the largest drop.

9. Improved stability in family income is a disincentive for female household members to join the labour force. As household income sources become more stable, females are less likely to join the labour force.

“Evidence points us to conclude that increased income stability, resulting from a structural transformation in occupational choice, plays a more crucial role than social and demographic factors in explaining the drop in FLFP in India.”

10. The results show that increasing access to education and skills may not necessarily lead to a rise in FLFP. The main takeaway is that unless social norms around work change or rural labour markets offer attractive forms of employment for women and their families, FLFP will not increase much.

11. The study concludes by saying that policies should promote the acceptability of female employment and communicate the importance of women’s work.

“Strategies to communicate the importance of women’s work should take into account the roles of women, husbands and in-laws in decisions related to FLFP.” 

Also Read: Why has women’s participation in the workforce been falling?