Why women are missing out on jobs
India needs a focused fight that involves government, the private sector and civil society. The government can pass laws and policies such as expanding paternity leave and providing tax breaks for companies that promote inclusion
In 2017, when I began a 12-part investigation on women and work, people were surprised when told that Indian women were dropping out of the labour market in droves. “But you see women everywhere,” was the response I often got. At that time, women’s labour force participation at 27%, according to the government, placed us just above Saudi Arabia among the G20 nations.
That free-fall is now a train wreck. Since 2016-17, over 20 million additional women have quit, and workforce participation is 9% in a post-pandemic world, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, and 18% if you go by government data. Either way, it’s alarming. What’s worse is that most are not even looking for jobs.
The decline of women in the labour force from 2004-to 05 is one of India’s enduring mysteries. Why would women, across demography, geography and income, quit paid work in such large numbers? Why would they quit when educational attainment was up, fertility was down, and the economy was growing?
There are numerous theories.
Women quit paid work because they are studying (good news). But, they also left because of the burden of housework. They quit because of a lack of infrastructural support, including affordable and safe transportation.
The obliteration of women from paid work doesn’t find enough space in public discussion. Rarely mentioned in Parliament, it is never an election issue as, say, the unemployment of young men.
Yet, for several reasons, we should care. We should care because if women participated in the economy on a par with men, it could push the Gross Domestic Product up by 60%, instead of the present 18% or less.
When families believe daughters and daughters-in-law will bring home an income, they are more invested in their education and health. As a result, these women are likely to have greater clout and status in families.
India needs a focused fight that involves government, the private sector and civil society. The government can pass laws and policies such as expanding paternity leave and providing tax breaks for companies that promote inclusion. It can widen skilling for women beyond embroidery and papad-making to more lucrative work. It can take steps to improve public transportation.
The private sector, too, has a role in making it easier for women to return to work after maternity leave; by enlarging mentorship and networks and using corporate social responsibility funds to promote empowerment.
And civil society activists must also plug the gaps — step up digital training and work to remove patriarchal ideas of women’s work and place in society. If we strive for an equal society, women must be enabled to reach their full potential. Beti padhao does not work, unless betis also go to work.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal