The challenge regarding women’s employment in India is two-fold. On one hand, the labour force participation rate (LFPR), referring to share of population that is either employed or actively looking for employment opportunities, among women, is much lower compared to many other countries in the world. Considering the demographic advantage that India has been bestowed with, this is a sorry state of affairs that young women have been struggling to enter the workforce, and thereby unable to contribute to both economic growth and development, as well as to attain their own economic empowerment.
Struggle To Find Work
According to the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), in 2021-22, 22 percent of young women (15 to 29 years age-group) in rural areas and 20 percent in urban areas were part of the labour force, while the corresponding figures for male youth were 62 percent and 59 percent, respectively (see Figure).
To add to the worry, the last decade and a half saw a decline in women’s LFPR in India. The other aspect of the challenge is the rising unemployment levels among youth in recent years (among both women and men), more so in urban areas. The situation is worse for women youth particularly in the urban areas, who face higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts. The urban youth unemployment rate in 2021-22 was a staggering 21.6 percent among women, as compared to 15.8 percent among men.
Moreover, the gender-gap in unemployment rates increases further with higher levels of education attainment. While the latest PLFS for 2020-21 and 2021-22, show slight improvements in both these indicators, it has happened at the cost of quality of work, with more women taking up subsistence and precarious employment to support household income during the last two years.
Unhelpful Society, Economy
It is not new that women in India have been facing numerous challenges in joining the labour market. Some of the supply-side challenges include gendered socio-cultural norms in a patriarchal society against women working outside of home, and restrictions posed specially after marriage, mobility issues and many other types of discrimination (Verick, 2018). Moreover, gender-based discrimination of workers in areas such as wages and growth prospects, and safety concerns for women at workplaces, have also discouraged women in taking up work opportunities outside of home-based enterprises.
However, in recent years, demand-side constraints of the labour market seem to be emerging as a bigger challenge. The pace of creation of jobs has been far slower than the rate of growth of working-age population in the country, which is reflected in the increasing rates of unemployment for both males and females. The fact that women with higher education attainment, are finding it more difficult to find jobs than men, indicates that there has been a mismatch between their aspirations from the job market and what the job market is actually offering.
The gendered segregation of the labour market is another challenge for women’s entry into the labour market. Both employer bias as well as household’s tendency to invest in selected areas of education for females, result in women clustering in particular industries and occupations, which eventually limits their growth prospects. Various studies have highlighted the employability issue that limits employment opportunities for youth. There is often a mismatch between the skills that are valued in the job market, as opposed to skills that are acquired through an average course of higher education, especially in the non-professional courses (Azim Premji University, 2019).
Skilling Is Key
The Indian labour market is highly informal with around 88% to 90% jobs being informal in nature without any social security provision from the employers. One key step to facilitate more women to join paid work is by creating jobs with decent work conditions and making sure that they have access to at least some basic levels of social protection. As envisaged in the Code on Social Security 2020, ensuring social security of all workers including those in the unorganised sector, is going to be crucial.
At the same time, legal measures of equal pay, lack of discrimination at workplaces and ensuring safety norms at workplaces, can make a huge difference in attracting more women to join the labour force. The recently released draft National Youth Policy 2022 and policy support for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and entrepreneurship offer hope of greater job creation in the formal economy. Specifically, developing agriculture and allied sectors, and agro-based industries, can retain a lot of job-seekers in rural and semi-urban areas, instead of always migrating to urban areas to seek non-farm employment.
A look at the education levels of women youth who are currently out of the labour force in India reveals that the majority of them have primary or secondary level education. Those with graduation and post-graduation degrees are relatively less. Both the current employment scenario and lack of required skills to be employable discourage them from joining the labour market due to.
Globally, it is observed that when there is relatively higher levels of unemployment or underemployment, alongside lower prospects of employability due to inadequate skillsets, women often tend to refrain from joining the labour market, which is also known as the ‘discouraged worker effect” (Narayanan, Das, Liu, & Barrett, 2017). The majority of these young women then spend considerable time in fetching water for household use, firewood for cooking, household chores (cooking, cleaning, washing clothes etc), and caring for children, elderly and ailing family members.
Social Sector Spending
Another way to facilitate women’s employment is by increasing public investment on social sector – in health, nutrition, education, rural development, roads, sanitation, water supply, cooking fuel, etc. Social sector investment, especially in care services such as child care and elderly care, will reduce some of the burden of household care work that women do. It also creates more opportunities for the young women to join the labour market in such services including the frontline work and community mobilisation work in nutrition, education and health.
Majority of women youth with education levels of secondary and below, can be incentivised to enter such social sector work with appropriate training. Thus, alongside advocating for changes in gendered societal norms against women taking up paid work, it is crucial to initiate urgent policy interventions to create adequate jobs across industries and sectors that are labour-intensive, and which ensure decent work conditions. Otherwise, women will either have to take up precarious and low-paying jobs, which are not sustainable in the long run, or be forced to stay away from the job market while still carrying the huge burden of unpaid care work.
Mridusmita Bordoloi is an Associate Fellow with the Accountability Initiative team at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.