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What prevents women from working in India? [Women & Society]

Social mores, rising incomes of men, and gender-based segregation in the job market may be limiting women’s economic empowerment in India

The under-representation of women in the workforce is both a social and economic loss. Photo: Nathan G./Mint

The under-representation of women in the workforce is both a social and economic loss.

The latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2015-16 shows that the proportion of working women has witnessed a sharp decline compared to a decade ago. In 2005-06, when the last NFHS survey was conducted, 43% of married women in the age group of 15-49 years had reported working in the past 12 months. This proportion has declined to 31% in the latest survey. 98% of married men in the same age bracket reported having worked in the last 12 months, the data shows.

That women are withdrawing from the labour market at a time when the economy is growing first became evident when the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) released the data on India’s quinquennial employment survey conducted in 2011-12. The numbers revealed a dramatic decline in women’s labour force participation rates compared to 2004-05.

The NSSO and NFHS data are not strictly comparable because of methodological differences. Nonetheless, both the data sets point towards the same broad trend: a decline in the share of women in the labour force.

The under-representation of women in the workforce is both a social and economic loss. A McKinsey Global study in 2015 found that India could increase its GDP by 16-60% by 2025 by simply enabling women to participate in the economy at par with men.

Yet, this might not be an easy challenge to crack. A growing body of research on this issue points to three key factors that have limited the role of women in the Indian economy: the role of entrenched gender norms in our society, the rising incomes of men (which raises family income and makes it easier for women to quit working), and the lack of quality jobs for women.

The latest evidence on regressive attitudes towards women comes from the Social Attitudes Research India survey covering Delhi, Mumbai, UP and Rajasthan in 2016. A new study based on the survey shows that a significant share of men and women feel that married women whose husbands earn a good living should not work outside the home.

Belief that women should not work outside home appears to be widespread

Thus, it is no surprise that women’s participation in the job market often declines with a rise in educational attainments. Highly educated women are more likely to marry more educated men with high incomes, and hence remain out of the labour force, a new study by Esha Chatterjee of the University of Maryland and co-authors shows. Despite an increase in the last 10 years, the proportion of married women earning more than their husbands remains low at 19%, NFHS data shows.

A higher share of currently married women reported earning more than their husbands in 2015-16 compared to 2005-06

There are of course significant regional variations in the share of women who are able to work as well as in the share of women who are able to take decisions autonomously. An index of women’s empowerment computed by Mint based on a state’s relative position in employment among married women, status of their cash earnings, authority in household decisions, and freedom from spousal violence shows that several north-eastern states and southern states fared much better on the index of women’s empowerment as compared to northern states such as UP, Bihar, Haryana, and Rajasthan. Southern states fared better on several indicators of women empowerment.

States with higher female literacy also fare better in other indicators of women empowerment

In general, there seems to be a positive relation between female literacy and female empowerment. However, the relationship between women’s educational attainments and their job prospects is a complex one. The study by Chatterjee and her co-authors suggests that while a woman’s chances of working in a salaried job rises with her level of education, her chances of working in a farm or a family business declines with rising levels of education.

The slow growth of salaried jobs in the country, and “sex-based occupational segregation” within those jobs may have contributed to the low proportion of working women in the country, the study suggests.

Data from NSSO seems to corroborate this explanation. Urban males accounted for 16% of India’s population, but held 77% of all jobs in computer-related activities in 2011-12, for instance. Of all the new jobs created in computer-related activities between 2004-05 and 2011-12, only 18% accrued to women, the data shows.

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