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How Can Women’s Participation in Paid Work Be Improved? CEDA’s Ongoing Project Aims to Find some Answers

An ongoing research and advocacy project at CEDA aims to identify what can work to improve women’s participation in paid work in India (with a focus on employment in the private sector), Akshi Chawla writes

The fact that fewer than a third of Indian women (aged 15 and older) are part of India’s labour force often startles people, especially those who do not work in the field of economics research and policy. What makes that shock much more emphatic is when one finds out that India’s female labour force participation rates (FLFPR in short) are among the lowest in the world. (A common example used by advocates to catch those unaware completely off guard is to inform them that India trails Saudi Arabia on this metric).

The situation looks even more grim when we look at long-term trends on this front. Instead of improving (or even remaining stagnant), India’s FLFPR actually declined in the recent past – a significant number of women exited the workforce in the initial decade of this millennium, and it is only in recent years that there has been a small increase on this front.

most countries across the world, the long-term trends on FLFPR have mostly shown either an improving trend or stagnation. Reversals/sudden drops are often the outcomes of a revision of definitions of what is counted as employment, such as a recent case of Rwanda illustrates. India remains an outlier on this front (the other major economy that has seen a decline in FLFPR is China, but the share of women in the labour force remains much higher – more than double – than India’s).

Why has this been the case and, more importantly, what can we do about it?

Since December 2021, at CEDA, we have embarked on an ambitious research and advocacy project to identify what can work to improve women’s participation in paid work in India (with a focus on employment in the private sector).

We are approaching this question from a critical – but sometimes less discussed – vantage point. Instead of focussing on what limits women’s “supply” into the labour market, we are interested in better understanding what the “demand” for women’s work looks like.

Let me elaborate on that a little. A common, almost intuitive, argument used to explain women’s low workforce participation in India is that it is the consequence of entrenched socio-cultural norms that hold back or prevent women from participating in the economy.

There is merit in these arguments – we do know women in India are expected to be primary caregivers and runners of the house. As a consequence, Indian women end up bearing a disproportionate and dominant share (and brunt) of household chores and domestic work.

This is true for women regardless of socio-economic status, region, educational attainment etc. Many families tend to invest less in girls’ education (as compared to boys’), and many girls are forced to drop out of education due to early marriages which remain widespread to this date. (Here’s another sobering data point – the median age of marriage for Indian women was 19.2 in 2019-21, meaning that teenage marriage is the reality for more than half of Indian women even now).

There are other similar factors that restrict women’s ability to seek paid employment outside the household, but this reasoning explains the story only partially. Despite huge strides in economic growth in the past few decades, the lack of progress on such a crucial indicator of economic and social progress is puzzling, especially when there has been staggering progress on several other related indicators including the narrowing of the gender gap in educational attainment, reduction in fertility rates, improvement in health outcomes, rapid urbanisation and improvement in basic infrastructure.

Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our project is taking a three-pronged approach to expanding our understanding of what can potentially work to improve women’s participation in paid work in India. The first of these is to collate, process and put together a gender data portal, bringing together key data points and making them available to users in an easy-to-access and understand format. The second involves conducting rigorous, empirical research to understand the job market as well as skilling possibilities for women in India. The third involves working closely with companies and private sector organisations to identify impactful interventions that have worked, and which could serve as an inspiration for others.

It is still too early for us to give definitive answers, but our initial learnings make it clear that if and when women are able to overcome resistance from within the household and their communities to seek and enter wage employment, it is not a bed of roses that awaits them. The job market, tough and extremely competitive as it is in a labour-surplus country like ours, is not always the most welcoming. From job applications to interviews, workplace infrastructure and conditions, leave policies and daily schedules, the world of work is often designed with the assumption of an employee who is an able-bodied man (with someone else to take care of his household and family members). As a consequence, these spaces and systems often tend to be indifferent (or sometimes wholly insensitive, even cruel) to women and anyone who does not fit into that mould. While several corporate organisations are increasingly making claims of caring for gender equality, few are backing it up with concrete action plans to achieve this vision. Data gaps make it difficult – almost impossible – to fully understand the gaps and skews that prevail.

It can all almost sound defeatist, but here is the silver lining. The labour market may not yet be working for women, but it is not impossible to change that. From simple design tweaks to better provision of information, policy mandates and incentives, to small and big investments in workplaces – there is hope to be found in many corners. We don’t need to wait for rigid social norms to change before we can foster more inclusive and equitable workplaces. Enabling more women to work outside of the house and earn decent wages is a revolutionary act in itself. And we are placing our hope that our ongoing project will help take us a few small steps forward in that direction.

(Akshi Chawla serves as the Editor at the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis(CEDA), Ashoka University)

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