Rise of women at work and their empowerment

STP Team
New Update

Susmita Das Gupta of Smart Ideas reflects on what's redefining the notion of women at work in the Indian context.

Let’s start with breaking the myth.


India is worse than even Somalia, when it comes to workforce participation of women.

In 2011, the total workforce participation rate (WPR) for women was 25.5%, and with the WPR for women in rural India at 30% and women in urban India at 15.4 %, it was lowest among the BRIC nations. Somalia had 37% participation during the same period.  India ranks the second lowest in the Group of 20 (G20) economies as well when it comes to women participation in workforce.

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Overall it ranks 124 out of 136 nations, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report. Not only that, India is one of the few countries where the rate of participation of women in the workforce has actually declined drastically in the last decade. It fell from 33.7% in 1991 to 27% in 2012, according to UN gender statistics.

The majority of female workers in rural areas (80%) work in the agriculture sector. Manufacturing is a distant second at 7.5%, followed by construction (5.2%) and services (7 %).

Urban India is even worse - women are a minority in most industries, even in the service sector, where they tend to be in more visible roles. Core engineering and automobile sectors have the least representation of female workers, employing 16% and 18% respectively.


Core engineering and automobile sectors have the least representation of female workers, employing 16% and 18% respectively. 

The highest number of women is in pharmaceuticals and healthcare: 42.4 %, signifying the fact that most women working in urban areas are not skilled.

But what’s more serious is that even educated women are getting out of full-time employment. Research by Everstone Capital showed that while the number of women enrolling in college has grown manifold, it has not translated into a proportionate increase of women who join into the workforce.

The low numbers of educated women in the workforce are evident in boardrooms as well. Women in India, according to research firm Catalyst, hold barely 5% of board seats—lower than all other BRICS countries.

At 22%, the rate of India’s female graduates entering the workforce is lower than the rate of illiterate women finding a job!



All this sums up to roughly to 217 million women who are not available in the workforce at the moment. What exactly will employing those additional 217 million do for India? International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde says it will boost India’s economic output by as much as 27% (as compared to 5% for USA and 9% for Japan).

Now, what is empowerment?

While empowerment has a very broad meaning in professional scenario, here is a broad definition for the social purpose:

Empowerment means:

  1. Having decision-making power.
  2. Having access to information and resources.
  3. Having a range of options from which to make choices (not just yes/no, either/or.)
  4. Assertiveness.

Let’s explore a couple of them to get an idea about the actual state of things.


Having decision-making power – Sounds good.  But, we are not deciding what daal we are cooking today (even that is not allowed in many cases). Let me give you a simple example. Have you watched the Life Insurance commercials on TV? Do any of them show that a woman makes a decision on what kind of insurance she or her family needs? Sar Uthake Jiyo is a male’s prerogative.  And if that’s the status in urban, educated, (probably) working women’s life, we can easily understand how it is with the marginalized women.

I think you get the idea.

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But what about assertiveness? Ah ! Well. You see a woman who is assertive is a bitch, as compared to a man, who is a leader :) So, assertiveness is not such a “womanly” attribute to have and is not encouraged for women to demonstrate.

So, where is the rise of women in work leading it to their empowerment?

Economists and sociologists talk about many reasons for the low and – as we have seen – falling rate of women in the workforce, including: dropping out of further education, raising children and family and social pressure. As mentioned above, even the number of women going to college doesn’t necessarily convert into women in workforce.

Real empowerment comes from making decision for oneself, and not be guilty about it. The power to make decisions come from education and thereby self confidence, which results in women joining the workforce and be independent financially. When most women are forced to be working to meet their basic “needs” and not their “wants”, where is no empowerment? Empowerment doesn’t result because a woman is working. A woman joins the workforce because she is empowered.

Real empowerment comes from making decision for oneself, and not be guilty about it. 

And by the all the statistics here, it looks very very bleak at the moment. The only way we can hope for a change in the next 20 years or so, is how parents, family and society change their attitudes towards their girl child and give them education to build their confidence and to make them empowered; and how government keeps its promise on its various programs on the development on the girl child, particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s a very difficult task at hand, indeed, but then a 27% rise in GDP can be a great carrot as well.

Susmita Das Gupta 


Women in India Women Entrepreneurs in India Women at Work