As per ILO, 52% of women in India express a desire to work either in paid jobs or in both paid jobs and care for families and homes. But surprisingly, India’s female labour participation rate has been surprisingly declining over the past two decades, dropping from 32% in 2005 to 19% in 2021. India however has a number of factors that hold women back from paid work – in both rural and urban settings.

Factors behind low women labour force participation

  • Unpaid labour and vulnerable employment: Women’s contributions to household chores, caregiving, and other unpaid activities are not adequately accounted for, leading to an underestimation of their labour force participation.
  • Societal norms and gender roles: Conservative societal norms in India prioritise women’s roles within the family, often leading them to leave their jobs, especially after marriage or after having children.
  • Need for better government measures and laws: Inadequate budgetary allocations for women and children hinder the progress of welfare schemes, while weakened programmes and limited spending on women’s safety perpetuate challenges in the workforce.
  • Economic constraints: Weak job creation, faulty economic policies, and insufficient investment in unorganised sectors, micro, small, and medium enterprises, and rural development contribute to the scarcity of gainful employment for women.
  • Gender inequality and lack of suitable job opportunities for women: Some sectors, particularly male-dominated ones like manufacturing, present barriers to entry for women entrepreneurs and employees. A lack of decent and accessible job options hinders women from entering or remaining in the workforce.
  • Reliance on agriculture: The stagnant growth in the secondary sector, particularly in manufacturing, poses a challenge in transitioning employment opportunities from agriculture to industries that provide better prospects.
  • Increased prosperity: As household incomes rise, women – particularly in urban areas are leaving the workforce because they no longer need to engage in physically demanding labour.
  • Choosing education over work: Many women prioritise education, which temporarily takes them out of the workforce, but they face challenges in finding suitable jobs upon completion of their studies.
  • Safety concerns: Migration and safety concerns further limit women’s access to employment. Inadequate urban infrastructure, along with safety issues in public spaces, can discourage women from seeking and retaining jobs, particularly in urban areas.
  • Gender pay gap: The Oxfam India Discrimination Report 2022 highlighted the gender pay gap in India, with women facing bias in recruitment and pay across the country.

Measures to tackle declining female labour force participation

  • Ensuring equal pay for work of equal value through legal protection, wage transparency, and gender-neutral job evaluation.
  • Addressing occupational segregation by challenging preconceived notions about the value of certain types of work.
  • Eliminating gender discrimination and harassment through legislation, effective remedies, and awareness campaigns.
  • Promoting work-family balance through adequate maternity protection, paid paternity and parental leave, and social protection measures.
  • Creating quality care jobs and improving regulation and protection for care professionals.
  • Implementing gender-responsive policies to safeguard women’s employment during economic downturns.
  • To foster women’s entrepreneurship and employment in India, there is a need for initiatives such as financial support for women entrepreneurs, improved education and training access.
  • Apart from the technical skills, they have to be trained in cognitive and interpersonal skills to adapt to a technology-enabled world.

Creating an inclusive environment that empowers women is crucial for India’s growth trajectory, necessitating continuous evaluation of efforts to challenge stereotypes and encourage female labour force entry. Promoting gender equality and increasing women’s participation in the workforce are critical steps toward leveraging India’s demographic dividend and achieving sustainable growth.