Here’s How Women’s Work Participation In India Has Declined

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An excerpt from the book Reviving Jobs: An Agenda for Growth by Prof. Santosh Mehrotra.

The declining participation of women in the workforce has been explained mainly by two opposing views. One view is that the decline is due to the increasing average household incomes in the country, with the growth of the economy resulting in women withdrawing from the labour force. This is known as the ‘income effect’. Further, with rising incomes, girls may continue into tertiary education rather than enter the labour market. The opposing view is that this decline in female labour force participation reflects a ‘discouraged worker effect’ arising from the lack of demand. Such a situation arises when the employment situation is bleak; so women prefer to opt-out of the labour market and not offer themselves for work.

Work participation rate: Women’s participation in the workforce has been very low in India, much more so in urban areas. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), officially released in May 2019, showed a further sharp decline in women’s participation in the workforce in 2017–18. The decline was particularly sharp in rural areas, falling from 33 percent in 2004–05 to 17 percent in 2017–18 for all ages, and from 48 percent to 23 per cent for women above fifteen years of age.

Women’s participation in urban areas was low initially but dropped further from 17 percent in 2004–05 to 14 per cent in 2017–18 for all ages, and from 23 per cent to 18 per cent for women above fifteen years of age.

Status of employment: A broad classification of workers by status is that of self-employed and wage employed. The NSSO further splits wage workers into regular or salaried and casual wage workers. More than half the women workers in rural areas are self-employed, though the figure has fallen from nearly 63 percent in 2004–05 to 58 per cent in 2017–18. The number for regular and salaried women workers rose sharply to more than half the women workers in 2017–18 in urban areas and to a smaller extent in rural areas.

women's work participation India

Reviving Jobs: An Agenda for Growth by Prof. Santosh Mehrotra

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In rural areas, the majority of self-employed women work in agriculture. Of the total female urban employment in 2011–12, 3 percent are self-employed as street vendors and 32 percent are engaged in home-based manufacturing. While it would appear that women in urban areas have been absorbed in salaried employment, the quality of this work is questionable. We found that in 2011–12, of the 43 percent of regular salaried workers, 13 per cent were domestic workers and about 2 percent were waste-pickers. These four vulnerable groups—street vendors, home-based manufacturers, domestic workers and waste- pickers—constituted nearly 50 per cent of the female urban workforce in 2011–12.

The precarious nature of regular salaried employment in rural and urban areas is indicated by the nature of the contracts. PLFS 2017–18 found that 71 percent of the urban women workers who reported having regular salaried employment did not have a written job contract and this had risen from 61 per cent in 2004–05. In rural areas, while the share of regular salaried employment among women was quite low, 58 percent were without a written job contract in 2017–18. Further, 52 percent of urban women and 47 percent of rural women in regular salaried jobs in 2017–18 were not entitled to paid leave. Therefore, the fact of an increase in regular salaried employment among women in urban areas alone is not something to celebrate. It does not reflect the precariousness of these jobs and the increase in the share of women in such precarious jobs.

Hours worked and availability for additional work: For the first time, the NSSO collected information on hours worked in PLFS 2017–18. This was measured as the average number of hours worked in a week during the four quarters of the survey period from July 2017 to June 2018. The survey found that self-employed men work twelve hours more than women per week.

And in regular and casual employment, men work seven hours more than women in a week. However, this does not mean that women work less hours as we need to understand their large contribution to unpaid work inside and outside homes.

Under the patriarchal system prevailing in the country, women undertake most of the domestic and care work in the household. It has also been argued that women undertake a lot of expenditure-saving activities to support the family’s income, which generate work other than domestic and care work. These activities included working on kitchen gardens/ orchards, rearing poultry, free collection of fish, small game, wild fruit, vegetables, husking paddy, preparing jaggery (gur), preservation of meat or fish, weaving baskets/mats, making cow-dung cakes for fuel, tailoring/weaving and tutoring of own or other children.

The NSSO also collected information on these activities under code ninety-three and regarding domestic care activities under code ninety-two in its usual activity status. In PLFS 2017–18, 50 percent of women in all age groups between twenty and fifty-nine years undertook domestic care activities under code ninety-two. More interestingly, 15 percent of women in all age groups between twenty-five to fifty-nine years undertook expenditure-saving activities under code ninety-three. In contrast, hardly any men of these prime-age groups (less than 1 per cent) undertook either domestic care or expenditure-saving activities.

PLFS 2017–18 collected information on whether labour was available for additional work. Overall, a larger proportion of self-employed women reported being available for additional work and also for more additional hours.

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The fact that women reported availability for additional work and were engaged in expenditure-saving activities indicated there was a felt need among women for work and income. The traditional norms prevalent in society probably implied that they were available only for certain kinds of work and in certain locations closer home. Clearly, the declining work participation of women as a macro phenomenon is more complex than it appears at first. As the contribution of this (nearly) half of the population is crucial for the economy, in the next section we discuss some possible ways to boost women’s participation in the workforce.

Excerpted from the chapter Boosting Women’s Work Participation in India, written by Jeemol Unni, from the book Reviving Jobs: An Agenda for Growth by Prof. Santosh Mehrotra, Penguin Random House.