Behind India’s Dwindling Female Workforce


Rukmini S in Caravan:

In most of the world, more men than women do paid work, since women do more unpaid cooking, cleaning and childcare within the home. (Worldwide, women hold about 40 percent of the world’s paid jobs, according to the ILO.) In developing countries like India, where female education rates are low and family sizes large, the barriers to entering the workforce are particularly high. (Seelampur fits this pattern well; it has among the lowest literacy rates in the state, and the highest proportion of children, indicating that fertility there is high and family sizes are big.) As countries develop, women generally become better educated and have fewer children, and more of them are expected to join the workforce.

India has met its Millennium Development Goals target on female educational enrollment and fertility has fallen far faster than it was expected to over the past ten years, but the workforce participation rate has still declined. The alarm bells first went off when the numbers from the 2009–10 round of the National Sample Survey, the only official source of employment data in India, came back. Among women over 15 years old, female workforce participation—which includes those who are usually employed and those looking for work—had crashed by 10 percentage points since the previous survey, in 2004–05. Just over a quarter of rural women (who traditionally have higher agriculture- and poverty-driven work-participation rates) were now in the workforce, and just over a tenth of urban women were. Even if an unusually large number of women participated in the workforce in 2004–5—and there is an argument that they did—20 years of data analysed by economists Steven Kapsos and Andrea Silberman of the ILO confirm that there has been a gradual fall in the proportion of Indian women looking for and going to work.

Three main hypotheses have commonly been put forward to explain this decline, all of which intend to minimise the alarm. The first, favoured by the planning commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, is that more young women are staying on in higher education, leaving fewer available to work or look for jobs. Kapsos and Silberman, however, have crunched the numbers to show that female enrollment in higher education is still low enough to explain only a very small part of the downward trend. The second, espoused in the media by the journalist and economist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, is that as Indian families get richer, they pull their women out of the workforce. Although this is a cultural phenomenon observed in India, Kapsos and Silberman’s calculations again show that it explains just a small part of the fall.

The third hypothesis relates to the tortured issue of data collection.