India’s problem with female labour force participation, has COVID-19 changed things? In a recent piece that has now gone viral, The Economist explains why nations that fail women, fail, showing cross-country evidence that “patriarchy and poverty go hand in hand.” The authors of the article conclude that the surest way to curse one’s nation is to subjugate its women.
In the year 2017, India achieved two milestones. First, it earned the moniker of the world’s fastest-growing major economy, maintaining growth rates above 7% consistently since 2011-12. The second milestone, was a grimmer one, for 2017 was the year when India’s female labour force participation and employment levels fell to their lowest ever levels since Independence.
India is a country where less than a third of women have joined the labour force and only a little over a quarter are employed. We have amongst the lowest work participation rates amongst women globally, with only parts of the Arab world being lower than India (World Bank, 2017). An examination of time series data over the last five decades, shows that women’s low work participation (vs. men) is not new, and is only worsening.
The labour force participation rate (LFPR), which measures the proportion of working-age looking for work, has declined steadily from 47.1% in 1987-88, hitting its nadir at 23.3% in 2017-18, before recovering to 30% in 2019-20 (NSO data). The exodus of rural women from the labour force has been a key driver of falling FLFPR, especially since 2004. The rural female LFPR has nearly halved, falling from 53.7% in 1987-88 to 33% in 2019-20, while the urban female LFPR fell from 26.1% to 23.3%.
In line with these historical trends, women faced the brunt of the COVID-19 lockdown and economic crash. Between March to April 2020, 26.6% of women moved out of the labour force, vs. 13.4% of men. Even in December 2020, the size of the female labour force continued to be 14% lower than December 2019, vs. 1% for men. Moreover, as the second wave hit rural India with an unexpected ferocity, rural women formed nearly 80% of job losses in April 2021, vs. just 11% in April 2020 (CMIE Data). Consultations conducted by Nikore Associates between August 2020 – May 2021 with over 60 women’s community-based organizations, self-help groups and corporates revealed that women’s employment was at far greater risk post COVID-19, with women often being the first to be let go and the last to be rehired.
Even in December 2020, the size of the female labour force continued to be 14% lower than December 2019, vs. 1% for men.
This presents a queer conundrum – why is it that a country seeing considerable gains in household incomes, women’s education, and remarkable decreases in fertility rates, does not have greater participation from women in the workforce? The answer – it’s a mix of reasons.
Through the decades, even as the economy diversified, women remained concentrated in low-growth sectors. The proportion of rural men employed in agriculture fell from 80.6% in 1977-78 to 55.4% in 2019-20, but rural women only decreased from 88.1% to 75.7% (NSO data). Estimates suggest that between 1994-2010, women received less than 19% of new employment opportunities generated in India’s 10 fastest-growing occupations. (Chaudhary and Verick, 2014).
The income effect
With increasing household incomes, especially over the last three decades, the need for a “second income” reduced. Consequently, families withdrew women from labour as a signal of prosperity. This “income effect” can explain ~9% of the total decline in the female labour force participation rate between 2005 to 2010 (Kapsos, 2014).
Gender gaps in higher education and skill training
Women’s workforce participation is highest either amongst those who are not literate, or those with tertiary education or skill training. However, tertiary-level female enrolment rose from 2% in 1971 to only 30% in 2019 (World Bank data). As of 2019-20, only 3% of working-age women received formal vocational training, of which 47% did not join the labour force (NSO data).
Unpaid care work continues to be a women’s responsibility, with women spending on average 5 hours per day on domestic work, vs. 30 minutes for men (NSSO, 2019). Women face inordinate mobility restrictions such that only 54% can go to a nearby market alone (NFHS, 2015-16). Women regularly sacrifice wages, career progression, and education opportunities to meet family responsibilities, safety considerations, and other restrictions, in line with their status as “secondary income earners”.
To chart a gender-sensitive socio-economic recovery post COVID-19, Governments, the private sector, media, and the social sector need to work together to improve working conditions, reduce wage gaps, increase opportunities for women across sectors, and change mindsets. State Governments may establish gender-based employment targets for urban public works. Central/State government can consider introducing wage subsidies to incentivise hiring women in micro, small and medium enterprises. Governments could introduce mandatory or incentives-based gender targets across skill training institutions. Corporates should track the proportion of women at different levels of seniority across job roles. Firms and NGOs should come together to invest in bridging the digital gender divide, offering free mobile phones and laptops to girls from disadvantaged communities, and offer long-term training. And most importantly, employers, community organisations, media, and social influencers should promote the anthem of making men equal care-work partners!
Mitali Nikore is an economist and Founder of Nikore Associates, a youth-led economic research and policy think tank. The views expressed are the author’s own.