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DECODING INDIA'S WORKING WOMEN CONUNDRUM

"It is time, at last, that India transcends from "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" to "Beti ko Bachao, Padhao aur Rozgaar Dilwao" (Enable the daughter to live, study and work)."


Anjanee Khosla explains the socio-political attitudes and policy changes the India of tomorrow needs to help its women access work.

To work or not to work- that is the crucial question faced by Indian women today. To anybody looking at plummeting female labour participation rates in the country, it might seem obvious that Indian women are choosing not to work despite rising female literacy levels. Yet, the question then arises- is it really a choice, or are Indian women driven away from the workplace?

To answer this question, it is imperative to look at India's global position regarding the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR). India, today, stands at the dismal spot of the tenth last country worldwide in terms of FLFPR- which stands at 16.1% as of the July-September quarter of 2020. The only countries underperforming India tend to be war-torn or unstable economies like Somalia and Iraq. Strangely enough, contrary to the conventional wisdom of FLFPR increasing with an increase in income, India's female labour force participation has just dropped consistently. This is obvious when one studies the trajectory between 2004 and 2011- when India's FLFPR fell from 31% to 24% despite the economy's growth of 7% per annum at the time (Haan, 2018).

One may attribute the cause of the low participation rate to increasing education rates. After all, if women decide to leave their underpaying jobs in pursuit of upskilling via education, clearly, the issue would be neatly explained away. However, since 2004 the female literacy rate has increased from a meagre 50% to 70.3% in 2021 (Halan, 2018). Yet, the same has not translated into women's workforce participation. Although single unmarried women's share has risen from 37% to 50%, married women's share has stagnated at 20%. The cause behind this is complex and nuanced but involves- India's patriarchal set-up, unequal gender-based domestic division, and non-conducive working environments.

Even after decades of attempts at female empowerment, India still runs on an intensely gendered narrative. Consider the case of Ganesh Joshi- a politician elected in Uttarakhand's State Cabinet- who recently remarked, "Women talk about all the things they want to do in life, but the most important thing for them is to look after their family and kids." (Misra, 2021) Such comments are not an anomaly but rather the norm in India, ingested by many without much debate or discussion. In such an environment, where women are drilled to view working for money as a man's job, far too many women, especially the married ones, feel disenfranchised even to consider applying for jobs. Rather, they tend to delegate breadwinning to their spouses and dedicate themselves to domestic duties.

This is not aided by the fact that even when women in India do work, they are still largely expected to manage the household simultaneously. This means that chore division between husbands and wives remains a myth. In fact, for every 36 minutes of unpaid care work performed by a man, a woman is estimated to complete more than six hours of the same(Pande et al., 2015). As a result, many married women choose to preserve themselves from the crippling burden of managing their work and home lives simultaneously by favouring the latter over the former. This phenomenon is far too common in our country and is deemed the "marriage penalty."

With so many disincentives for women to drop out of the workforce, it also does not help that the working environment in our country is marked with rampant, unsolicited advances made towards women and a culture that tolerates heinous crimes like rape and assault. This problem is far worse for working women lower down the socioeconomic ladder, who often do not have the resources to access a formalized justice procedure. Job insecurity, additionally, happens to be far worse for women at the bottom of the rung. Considering that most women's labour happens to be centred around house-cleaning and domestic work in the urban sector and agriculture in the rural sector, women are susceptible to bearing the brunt of India's jobless growth. For instance, by 2030, 12 million women are expected to lose their livelihoods in the agriculture or forestry sector due to automation. (Sharma, 2021)

In the face of such facts, one may say that women can quickly upskill and shift to the booming sectors of the economy. However, such sectors- like IT services and manufacturing activities- demand far higher tertiary or vocational skills that many women cannot access. This has led to a dearth of opportunities for moderately skilled women. Many such working women are also certainly not aided by the fact that, on average, women in India are paid 34% less than men for the same job with the same skills. For a country that worships both work and (allegedly) women, it is ironic that India's working women suffer a far different reality. However, there is undoubtedly an available path ahead to reverse the decline of female participation rates in India. The good news is that the women of India want to work. This can be evidenced by 30% of women in domestic duties expressing a desire to work. So, the issue is less about "how do we get women to work," but rather a question of "how do we create an atmosphere that encourages and safeguards the interests of working women?"

While it is true that many women of India have chosen not to work, the fact remains that it is far less of a choice but rather a compulsion, driven at the helm of a culture nagging them to assume homely duties. If India decides to tackle the dwindling FLFPR, it is imperative to create a culture that encourages task-sharing among the genders in breadwinning and housework duties. Occupational segregation needs to ebb away, and there has to be greater acceptance and accommodation of women working beyond traditional gender roles.

Although these are lofty goals, they are certainly not unachievable. India already has shown a marked increase in the inclusion of women in some high-paying sectors like finance and aviation. More than half of all the companies headed by women in India are in the financial industry. Furthermore, 11.7% of India's pilots are women- a substantive figure in contrast to a global average of 3% (Pande et al., 2015). This occurred at the behest of inclusive policies and welcoming environments. Suppose similar changes are initiated across other sectors, and India's FLFPR rises to a level of men's labour force participation. In that case, it is estimated that India's GDP would be boosted by a staggering 20% [United Nations Global Compact Study, 2020]. This is no small figure and an added incentive to encourage more women to occupy a seat at the table.

In conclusion, the plunging rates of female labour force participation in India are a symptom of a much larger problem of widespread gendered patriarchy. The issue of fewer working Indian women is not a female problem but rather the entire country's problem. Many Indian women are indeed choosing not to work- either by will or by force- and it is high time their concerns are heard and addressed. It is time, at last, that India transcends from "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" to "Beti ko Bachao, Padhao aur Rozgaar Dilwao" (Enable the daughter to live, study and work). References: Halan, M. (2018, July 11). Why Indian women don't want to work. mint. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.livemint.com/Money/wO2YtuIGogatn8N1DQvEIP/Why-Indian-women-dont-want-to-work.html Misra, U. (2021, April 3). ExplainSpeaking: India is no country for working women. here's why. The Indian Express. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/why-india-is-no-country-for-working-women-explainspeaking-7249928/ Pande, R., & Moore, C. T. (2015, August 23). Why aren't India's women working? The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/why-arent-indias-women-working.html Sharma, S. (2021, May 28). India together: Why aren't more women working? - 28 May 2021. India Together: Why aren't more women working? - 28 May 2021. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://indiatogether.org/lfpr-women#:~:text=12%20million%20women%20are%20likely,the%20market%20to%20begin%20with.


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