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International Women’s Day 2022: On inclusivity of women in labor force

The meagre representation of women in the labor force, and the consistent disparity between male and female labor force participation rates over the years despite improving educational outcomes for women (acc. to World Bank estimates, literacy rate for adult females has grown from 47% in 2001 to 65% in 2018, for adult males it has grown from 73.4% to 82.3% in the same period) and lowering fertility rates (3.3 total births per woman in 2000 to 2.2 total births per woman in 2019, World Bank estimates) is alarming.

women labour force
Employees work at a diamond jewellery manufacturing factory in Mumbai, India. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr. Kriti Khanna,

The female labor force participation rate (FLFPR) in India has been in falling steeply in the last 2 decades – from about 30.5% in 2000 to 21.1% in 2019 (pre-pandemic) and 18.6% in 2020 (post-pandemic), as per ILO estimates. The male labor force participation rate in comparison was at 69.5% in 2020 (also down from about 82% in 2000, reflecting low rates of overall job creation in India). The meagre representation of women in the labor force, and the consistent disparity between male and female labor force participation rates over the years despite improving educational outcomes for women (acc. to World Bank estimates, literacy rate for adult females has grown from 47% in 2001 to 65% in 2018, for adult males it has grown from 73.4% to 82.3% in the same period) and lowering fertility rates (3.3 total births per woman in 2000 to 2.2 total births per woman in 2019, World Bank estimates) is alarming. These trends call for a comprehensive analysis for figuring out reasons for continued exclusion of women from the labor force and for exploring some policy reforms.

The world FLFPR was way above India’s at 46% in 2020. Even in comparison to South Asian countries where labor market gender gaps are relatively more pronounced, India was behind many others (FLFPR in 2020 for Sri Lanka was 31%, Nepal was 71%, Bangladesh was 35%, Bhutan was 51%). Even within the dismal proportion of women in the labor force in India, most women are employed in low skilled work such as domestic help, farm and factory labor, etc., type of jobs which were also most impacted by the covid pandemic. Women are underrepresented in many high-skilled professions such as management, information technology, pharma and healthcare provision, etc., and in fact, the proportion of women employed in these jobs has been falling over time (Basole et. al 2018). This untapped potential of women accounts for a lost opportunity, as women’s workforce participation especially in high-skilled professions could contribute significantly to improving the economic growth and productivity of the country. Women joining the labor force could increase household incomes, which could further help increase consumption of goods and services especially for poor households, and therefore also help reduce poverty.

India’s low FLFPR has been attributed to multiple factors including – restrictive cultural norms which hinder a women’s mobility and freedom to work, the gender wage gap and discrimination, lack of quality jobs for women and gendered occupational segregation, lack of safety policies and flexible work timings, women having to balance between work and family responsibilities, etc. For addressing these issues, policymakers need to pursue an exhaustive approach – which targets banishing discriminatory norms in society against women, improves access to and relevance of education and training programs, improves access to childcare and enhances maternity protection, enables provision of safe and accessible transportation, and enables a path of economic growth that creates job opportunities for all including for women. The private sector may also be given incentives for hiring more women – e.g., by compensating firms for giving maternity leaves. Some interesting insights by Dr. Rohini Pande, Professor in Economics at Yale University, in her 2018 paper, are extremely relevant in this context. She highlights how the perception of danger reinforces social norms that restrict a woman’s mobility e.g., a big proportion of women in India still need permission from a family member to go to a health center or a local shop. Addressing these perceptions may improve a woman’s mobility and ability to find and work for a job. On the policy side, fostering women’s social networks may help in getting better training outcomes and in increasing women’s power in influencing household decisions. Giving women control over the money they earn, e.g., sending MGNREGA payments directly transferred to their bank account, is likely to have them work more and be more included in the labor force.

(The author is Founding Faculty in Economics, Plaksha University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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