Struggling to hold up half the sky

With female participation in India’s workforce on the plunge, the time is now to give women a fair shot at finding dignified and rewarding employment

Aditya Malaviya

Aditya Malaviya is a writer and researcher involved with a range of social development issues

Rani, 35, could no longer make ends meet; reluctantly, she left her village in Buxar in Bihar to join her husband in Delhi. It has been 15 long years since and, though it hasn’t been an easy life, she has “managed”.

But nothing had prepared Rani for the troubles that came when Covid-19 struck. Her life, the lives of her family members and her livelihood were upended. The pandemic brought Rani’s carefully choreographed existence to  standstill.

The lockdown did more than just shutter businesses; it also pulled the plug on the job that had helped Rani keep a precarious toehold in the city. As her meagre savings dwindled, Rani’s only refuge was her village.

“When I returned there was no work for me; people were wary of allowing anyone from outside into their homes or offices,” says Rani with a wan smile. “When I eventually found work, it paid 9,500 a month, a big fall from the  20,000 I was earning in Delhi. There was little left, but when you cannot pay the bills you have to dig deep inside you. Going back was not an option, so I decided to stick with the job.”

Little left? International consultancy Deloitte may beg to disagree. In its July 2022 report on India’s economic outlook, Deloitte pegs the country’s economic growth at 7.1–7.6% in 2022–23, making India one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of India has projected GDP growth of 7.2% for the same period.

So how can there be “little left” if India is the engine driving world growth? A paradox? Well, it’s complicated.

That jobs are hard to find for Rani and millions like her is true. What is also true is the historical decline in India’s female labour participation rate (FLPR). The International Labour Organization (ILO) pegged the country’s FLPR at 20.33% for 2020, down from 30.27% in 1990. In other words, almost four out of five Indian women are neither working nor seeking paid work. This effectively puts India among the 10 lowest-ranked countries globally in terms of women’s workforce participation (behind us are Egypt, Morocco, Somalia, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen).

The ILO figures are corroborated by data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), which puts it more starkly: between March and April 2020, 26.6% women moved out of the labour force (against 13.4% men).

The Indian government’s recently-released Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) for July 2019-June 2020 bolsters the above findings. There is a decline in FLPR, from 33% in 1993-94 to 18.2% in 2017-18, before an uptick to 24.7% in 2019-20. In comparison, for males it increased from 75.8% in 2017-18 to 76.8% in 2019-20. What explains the anomaly?

Ask Rani and she may think Covid is the cause, and she isn’t wrong. But that’s only half the story.

Rosa Abraham, professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, found that 35% of men and 70% of women lost their jobs as a consequence of the pandemic-induced lockdowns. While 7% of men who lost work during the lockdown remained unemployed even after, the corresponding share for women was 37%. Ms Abraham attributes this difference to “increased domestic duties, lack of childcare options after school shutdowns, and a surge in marriages”.

While the pandemic did widen labour market inequalities, existing gender biases and traditional socioeconomic barriers to women’s participation in the workforce played an equally significant, if not greater, role in the gradual retreat of women from the country’s workforce.

Declining share of agriculture to GDP: According to the 1983 National Sample Survey (NSS) report, 77% of rural households depended on the agricultural sector for their livelihoods. This dependency declined to 50%, as per PLFS 2018-19, and agriculture’s contribution to national GDP has also declined, from 34% in 1983-84 to 16% in 2018-19. This has had a corresponding impact on employment generation for the rural workforce, with the agricultural sector’s contribution to employment falling from 81% in 1983 to 58% in 2018-19.

Change in occupational choices: The declining share of agriculture to GDP prompted a shift in occupational choices in the rural workforce. Male workers engaged in agriculture declined from 78% (1983) to 53% (2018). Similarly, female agricultural employment fell from 88% to 71% over the same period.

On the other hand, workforce participation in rural non-agricultural sectors for male workers increased from 22% in 1983 to 47% in 2018, an increase of 25 percentage points, while female employment actually increased from 12% to 29% over the same period.

Smaller farm sizes, increasing mechanisation: The size of agricultural landholdings has also shrunk with concomitant divisions within families, making agriculture increasingly unviable.

A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that subsistence agriculture could be a factor in 28% of jobs lost by women by 2030, compared with 16% for men, given that the average size of operational holdings decreased from 2.28 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16. Increasing mechanisation, as agricultural implements rapidly replace labour traditionally undertaken by women, could have nudged this decline.

Working harder, but it’s hard to find work: Data from NSO 2020 shows that the total working time per day for women was 9.5 hours as compared with 7.9 hours for men, which means that even as women worked 91 minutes more than men per day, they got 50 minutes less time for socialising or leisure.

The central government’s ‘time use survey, 2021’ reveals that 92% of women in India between the ages of 15 and 59 spent nine times more time on household duties compared with men, often shouldering the ‘second shift’: coming home from work only to take on the entire burden of cooking, housework and elder and childcare. Indeed, Kapsos et al (2016) suggest that 33.6% of rural working-age women in India cite domestic duties for not being active in the formal labour market.

Globally, women spend three times more time on unpaid care work than men but in India it is 9.8 times more (NITI Aayog, 2017). That may be one reason why there are fewer and fewer jobs for them.

A report by the economics think tank Nikore Associates states that while workforce participation in rural non-agricultural sectors for male workers increased from 22% in 1983 to 47% in 2018, it went from 12% to 29% for female workers.

Where does this leave women? Sacrifice of wages, careers, and educational opportunities in lieu of family responsibilities and unpaid work. Ask Rani.

Social norms as hindrance: We thought educating girls could help translate into employment opportunities. That has not happened. Though more girls in India finish their lower secondary education than boys — 87.6% to 82.7%, according to a study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2017 — female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) continues to remain low.

This suggests there could be other issues at play, such as sociocultural norms and patriarchal, traditional conceptions of gender. So long as these dictate that women’s duties lie in the household, it will be a long, hard road for the discriminated half of our populace to find dignified, gainful employment.

The crux is fulfilling employment. And it is hard to come by for women, as Mitali Nikore of Nikore Associates points out. She found that women are barely represented in new-age jobs — 17% in cloud computing, 20% in engineering and 24% in data/artificial intelligence — despite tertiary-level female enrolment rising from 2% in 1971 to 30% in 2019 (World Bank data).

Is this the end of the road or the beginning of a new one, Rani may ask. It’s a good question, but if economic growth alone cannot solve the problem, what can?

Focus on manufacturing and tertiary sectors for employment-creation: Women account for just 12% of jobs in India’s manufacturing sector, which employs about 27 million people. This emphasises the need for an increased focus on women’s employment in manufacturing and its tertiary sectors to not only increase gender diversity but also innovation by tapping into a new, talented and well-educated pool.

This is also one way India can meet the demand for digital and technology skills, which is increasing by leaps and bounds, and where the share of women’s employment in professional and technical roles stands at just 29.2 per cent (World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021).

Vocational training and upskilling: Various demand-driven skilling and vocational programmes of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship leverage technology, incubation space, funding opportunities and upskilling centres to facilitate women’s participation in the fourth industrial revolution, and many such programmes are already in place.

The Economic Survey of India 2021-22 puts the proportion of skilling in the female workforce at 48.5%. Calculated as a percentage of the labour force, this is much higher than for male labour, even though women make up only about 25% in terms of labour force participation. Which demonstrates that women are beginning to come out in larger numbers to skill themselves and monetise their labour for the formal market, rather than opting to stay within the confines of homes, where there is no financial value for their labour.

Taking the law into their hands: India has implemented laws that protect women from gender discrimination. Some of these, like the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, the Factories Act, 1948, and the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013, are well-established, while new ones, such as the draft Labour Code on Social Security, 2018, look to level the playing field further.

Which brings us back to Rani. By moving to Delhi, she had taken that intuitive first step against the patriarchal restrictions placed on women by society. But Rani needs support — investment in basic infrastructure like provision of child care, transport, water and sanitation — so that she has more time to pursue better skilling and training opportunities, thereby increasing her occupational choices.

That, in turn, would mean good-quality labour and better compensation. As Rani reboots her life, she needs to have the confidence and reassurance that the autonomy and agency she has tasted will not be short-lived despite the uncertainties of the future.