The worrying saga of declining women’s labour force participation in India.

India’s female workforce participation rate has come down all the way from nearly 30% in 1990 to 20.7% in 2019, keeping India lowest amongst all the emerging economies. Well before we even dive into the story, let’s first actually understand what this problem is. I mean it’s true that in India we do see very fewer women to men ratio in our workspace but we often end up thinking it might be because of the already skewed gender ratio. But a small look at the statistics and you will know that this problem is critical and the least acknowledged.

You will hear movements such as “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, which solely aim at saving and educating the girl child. We often come across people talking about how laws can bring out all the changes needed for the violence that goes on against the women of the country. You must be certainly aware of the plethora of problems that plague the state of females in India, be it the killing of girlchild prevalent in the northern belts or the malnutrition in girls which is one of the highest in the world, rising violence against women in the form of rape, domestic violence, the list just goes on. But it is certainly very surprising that no one talks about or even acknowledges the constant decline that India has seen in terms of FLFPR.

The FLFPR (Female Labour Force Participation Rate) is a measure of the proportion of a country’s female working-age population that engages actively in the labour market, and mind it this just not includes the women employed, it also includes the one’s looking for some kind of work.

The below statistics show how India ranks in the bottom rungs in this case.

India’s ranking in FLFPR in the world. Image credit: NSSO (National Sample Survey Office)

Yes, let the above graph sink in. The only nations that have an FLFPR rate lower than that of India are the nine that you see in the graph which includes Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. The rest of the countries do better than India in this regard, which clearly explains the gravity of the situation.
Even our neighbors such as Bhutan, Nepal, or Bangladesh do much better than us. India’s FLFPR was always low but now is seeing a sharp decline from 31.2% in 2011–12 to 23.3% in 2017–18. Although the FLFPR numbers thrown up by the private sector CMIE’s household survey are much lower at 11.7%. So this raises the question of where are India’s women working? And why are they not in the workforce?

In India, the decision and ability for a woman to participate in the workforce is decided by a complex combination of economic and social factors.
Few of the economic and social factors in play are as follows:
1) The declining agricultural sector workforce because of the incoming automation has been said to account for the steep decline seen in the rural FLFPR. There has not been any growth in the other sector in the rural areas which could absorb the exodus of women from the agricultural sector.

2) The “care economy” burden that women carry, which is due to time spent on unpaid work, unpaid care, and domestic chores has been a strong deterrent from letting women participate in the workforce.

3) Women being discriminated against men. There is also a lot of social and patriarchal norms at play which results in women being considered as secondary income earners.

According to NSSO data (1970–2018), a female worker’s participation rates are much lower for higher expenditure categories. Families take pride when women don’t participate in the workforce if they are financially stable, demonstrating that male members can provide a comfortable life for the family. This is what fuels the perception of women being secondary earners, which would mean that women are expected to work only when the male members are not able to earn sufficient money to support the family.

There have been various policies in India trying to combat this issue of low employment in general such as MGNREGA which attracted a lot of women workers. But this still didn’t result in an expected rise in employment. There were laws amended to better accommodate the women workforce but mostly all of them have had unintended consequences.
For example, the government amended the Maternity Benefit Act in 2017. The 2017 Maternity Benefits Act changed the number of weeks of paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Although this sounded like an excellent idea and was expected to bring more women to the workforce, it is now feared to have led to an increase in the employer’s bias where the employer feels that hiring more women will only affect the company’s finances. Generalizing this for men and providing paternity leaves as well is something that can decrease this bias to some extent.

So, there doesn’t seem to be just one policy aimed at one area of focus which can boost women’s participation in the workforce.
India needs serious effort both at the economic and the social front to see any improvements but it of course isn’t that difficult as our neighboring country Bangladesh was somewhat like us a few years back but has now seen a drastic increase in its FLFPR because of its changed garment industry. The industry attracted a lot of women in the textile sector and also put Bangladesh as one of the leading apparel industry.
Some of the necessary but not sufficient alternatives that can help India flip the FLFPR curve:
1)Shift of the large informal sector to the formal sector.
2) Shifting focus of the rural agricultural sector to manufacturing so that it can make up for the declining agricultural sector in the rural area.
3) Setting up creche’s facilities and strengthening the community workers and incentivizing them can help the women in stepping out, where otherwise they don’t step out because of having to take care of the children.
4) Safer commute and better infra and availability of jobs near homes is something that can act as the best-supporting structures for attracting women to the workforce.
5) Above all, the market finally works on the demand-supply chain. To increase demand, there is some intervention required to create women intensive jobs. To strengthen the supply chain, more skill training program’s need to be implemented to push the exodus of not so skilled agricultural laborer to the skilled sector such as manufacturing and services.

India is certainly trying to get more women to the workforce by a lot of state-driven models as well. One such fine example is Kerala’s Kudumbashree which seems to have worked really well and has been able to attract nearly 5 million women.
We need a more accurate analysis of the factors that are in play to keep the women away from workforce participation. Also, each state in India seems to have its own set of problems making it more difficult to actually expect a nationwide policy that can address this at the grass root levels. In the absence of a proper collective effort at all levels by implementing policies that improve on the infrastructure, put a proper demand and supply in place, and bring in stringent labor regulations, this decline in the already low FLFPR is expected to continue.