Get women working for India’s economic development

Prabhjot R. Khan of ADB discusses why India has a low female labor force participation, despite the country’s strong economic growth in recent years.

kashmir indian women
Indian women from Kashmir going out into the fields to work. Women in the labor force is falling in the country, as they are still are slotted in traditional roles, limiting their entry into higher paying skilled professions that males dominate. Image:, CC BY-SA 2.0

For newly arriving expats in India, one of the first things to surprise them may be that there are comparatively few women in workplaces. This is true not only in offices, but even in hospitality sectors, where a much higher proportion of women are seen working in other countries. 

This gender imbalance is more than just appearances. At 27 per cent in 2017, the participation of women in India’s labor force is one of the lowest in the world. The extent of India’s shortfall is apparent when set against a world average of about 50 per cent, and 60 per cent in East Asia. 

More alarmingly, India’s female labor force participation is falling, from 37 per cent in 2005, despite the country’s strong economic growth in recent years. The situation has led economists to question why India has a low female labor force participation, even compared to its economically poorer South Asian neighbors Nepal and Bangladesh. 

Social norms and cultural practices define traditional views of what constitutes “men’s work” and “women’s work”. In this gender segregation of work, women are slotted in traditional roles such as taking care of the elder and children at home, and receptionists and secretaries in office.

Girls are often pushed into professions such as teacher, beautician and nurse, limiting their entry into higher paying skilled professions that males dominate. Families and peers may oppose women looking for a job, and women themselves might also recognise this opposition and be reluctant to work.

Women face other disadvantages. They may have limited education and skills, or face the need to balance work with household responsibilities. 

The falling female labor force participation in recent years may also reflect India’s rapid economic development—such as increased attendance by women in education and higher household income levels—that may leave women less in need of seeking work. But with such limited opportunities, Indian women simply have not benefited from economic growth as much as men. 

Recognising these problems, the Government of India has taken various measures to boost female labor force participation. These include subsidising or offering free higher education, an equal remuneration act, a maternity benefit act allowing child care leave, pushing for gender friendly work spaces, and a law against sexual harassment. The recently released 2019 interim budget emphasises women empowerment.

Yet, some longstanding legal provisions—such as those under the 1948 Factories Act, which were intended to protect women in the workplace—indeed hinder women employment. These need to be assessed and challenged. The central and state governments are working to change those outdated provisions.

Narrowing the gender gap yields twin benefits: improved well-being for individual women and better use of human resources for the wider society. One ADB study estimated that eliminating gender disparities in developing Asia would increase per capita income by 70 per cent within 60 years. Gender equality shrinks income inequality as well because women are on the whole poorer than men.

Women earning income and taking new roles are catalysts for social change. Studies show that working women are respected in the family and experience upward social mobility. 

In the labor market, we must address the gender divide along three lines: education, the institutional and legal framework, and career path.  

Better education and more skills training enable women to move up the career ladder. India’s National Sample Survey shows that women with vocational training are more likely to work, regardless of education levels.  

The legal and institutional framework must ensure equal opportunity for men and women regarding job placement; working hours and retirement age; pay, pensions, and other benefits; and property rights. 

Anti-discrimination laws should be rigorously enforced and complemented by awareness campaigns to prevent prejudice in the workplace. Society needs to lift constraints on women entrepreneurship and expand women’s access to information and communication technology, as well as ensure fair compensation. 

A woman with a job will help mould the attitudes of her household and the next generation.

Policies are needed to widen the career path open to women, encouraging them to move beyond stereotypical jobs and enabling their rise to positions of greater responsibility.

As more women take up new opportunities for paid jobs, they challenge entrenched cultural and social norms. A woman with a job will help mould the attitudes of her household and the next generation.

These changes will empower more women to follow, thus completing another virtuous cycle towards gender equality.

India’s society is changing. Its proportion of female commercial pilots at 13 per cent is the highest in the world, more than double the global average of 5 per cent. There is no gender pay gap among pilots.

Gender equality, Sustainable Development Goal 5, is not only a basic human right, but also key to sustainable development. Bringing more women into the workplace will help India—and its 650 million women—unleash their full potential. In the process, it will edge women closer to equality, energise the country, and boost economic growth. 

ADB supports targeted operations to empower women and girls, and is committed to continue advancing gender equality as a goal integral to its operations.

Prabhjot R. Khan is a Social Development Officer (Gender) at Asian Development Bank. This post is republished from the ADB blog. 

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