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Pioneering Gender Equality – Enhancing Women’s Participation in the Indian Labour Market

March 7th, 2024

by Ainesh Dey

The Indian labour market reflects persistent disparities inclusive of occupational segregation, unequal leadership, limited access to leadership roles and the impact of traditional gender norms as byproducts of complex challenges and opportunities shaped by multifarious historical, societal and cultural factors. Over the years, Indian state and central governments have made multiple labour market reforms that target women. However, the need of the hour centres on the strength of this existing body of reforms, in a manner that avoids unanticipated perverse effects.

While National Samples Surveys (NSS) show that between 1993 and 2011, Indian women’s labour force participation declined from 35 to 24 per cent, despite the context of higher economic growth, a humble 23 per cent of the working age women were in the labour force. Moreover, such declines are visible in high skill professions, given that the percentage of female employees among high return professions (senior officers, legislators and managers) fell from 13 per cent in 2011 to 7 percent in 2016.

In this regard, creation of inclusive pathways for gender- based development prospects alongside targeted efforts to provide leadership development opportunities against the backdrop of the context of shifts in the overall labour landscape, by curbing gender bias and stereotypes, constitute the most prudent course of action. This essay seeks to emphasize this very premise of sustainable and inclusive female involvement in the labour market, thereby shedding light on the critical issues, the dynamics of progress and the prospective recommendations for the fostering of an equitable, diverse and thriving workforce.

The Present Context of Female Participation

The flashpoints of gender discrimination are rather insidious. The most challenging of these include the stigma against women working and migrating. According to economist Arielle Bernhardt, a woman in India “working outside the home drains household status in an extremely patriarchal society”.

As per the 2011 report of the International Labour Organization, about 35.3 per cent of rural women and

46.1 per cent of women working in urban areas attend to domestic duties, up from 29 and 42 per cent respectively in 1993-94. While the report attributes such an unforeseen hike to the increase in household incomes, thereby discouraging women from working and contributing to the economy, the problems mainly stem from four major flashpoints, stated below.

  • Occupational Nature and Gender Wage Disparity:- The gender based occupational segregation as is evident, plagues the Indian labour force even to this day. Given the cyclical nature of work done by women, their conspicuously lower share in the workforce has not been a fresh development. The pre and post COVID-19 context strengthened this premise to an even greater extent.
  • The Low Female Participation Rate, infamously referred to as the LFPR as per recent research, increased by 1.57 pp or 27 per cent not only as a result of economic shock waves generated by the lockdown, but also due to the gender-wage disparity especially in the service sector, arising from over representation of men alongside part time employment for women with lower wages.
  • Barriers to economic empowerment : Additional factors of discriminatory workplace practices, including gender based harassment and career advancement, create hostile environments that discourage women from fully engaging in the labour force. Moreover, the perennial issue of sexual discrimination permeates different spheres of female professional engagement, as pronounced by statistics marshaled by the Pew Research Centre in 2022, stating that only 23 per cent of Indians inclusive of women, out of the sample surveyed, believed in the existence and rapid perpetuation of such practices. Such lack of awareness coupled with inadequate policy interventions consolidate such inequalities on a larger scale.
  • Lack of Direct Benefits Transfers: Direct transfer of benefits are an increasingly important part of India’s social sector infrastructure. However in the case of women, even the targeted minimum income programmes are geared more towards household welfare, without being directed towards women ( Field et al, 2019).
  • Experimentation with broader based gender quotas for public service sector employment: Certain instances such as a 30 per cent reservation for women in government jobs in Rajasthan, including 5 per cent for widows alongside the presence of quotas in specific sectors in Gujarat, may have played a beneficial role, however such have to be implemented on wider role for increased female productivity.

While reservation is one side of the coin, optimum utilization of resources, as a result of the same is another. In India, the latter is still missing, due to stagnation of female Labour Force Participation Rate (LAFRP) at 20-22 per cent, thereby holding up 27 per cent of India’s GDP.

Breaking Barriers:- Policy Reforms and Transforming Gender Inclusion

The identification of the aforementioned disparities implicated in the lower female turnouts, strengthen the pedestal of consideration of further labour policy reforms.

Firstly, while policies to increase the Female Labour Force Participation could be considered separately, it is imperative to streamline skilling programmes which are otherwise blind to different safety and mobility concerns in my opinion. Migration support centers instead of gender based quotas as stated by Artiz Prillaman, can account for curbing of gender based labour market barriers, by consolidating a level playing field for women employees.

Moreover, the grant of subsidies to women-friendly policies via tax benefits, amnesty or even similar schemes could align public and private sector incentives. A classic example is India’s recent maternity leave policy inspired by the Paid Family Leave in California and the Parental Pay Leave in Australia, where the cost is borne by private firms.

As per the TeamLease Report of 2018, out of 1.8 million Indian women in 2018, very few were able to achieve employment as a result of lack of proper implementation of the Maternity Leave Act.

Lastly, the monitoring of quotas and vocational centers alongside necessary complementary policies to enhance female employment can act as “ceilings to FLFP”, per research conducted in 2016, thereby actively reducing both explicit and implicit bias among trainers and women recruiters. Moreover, affirmative action in the case of employment could mimic the success of monitoring labour policies.

Embracing Inclusivity in the Labour Force: Conclusion

The dynamics of gender in the labour force are influenced by a complex interplay of social, economic and cultural factors. While gender disparities persist, there are opportunities to advance inclusivity and empower women to be part of the workforce in general.

The identification of root causes, policy interventions and supportive initiatives are essential in addressing the barriers as mentioned above. Advancing gender parity in the labour force is not only a strategic investment. Leveraging intersectional approaches that account for the diverse experiences and needs of women from different socio-economic backgrounds, regions, and communities is essential to drive meaningful progress.

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About the author

Ainesh Dey

Ainesh Dey is a 19-year-old student from India with keen interest in policy formulation, advocacy, international affairs and developmental economics. He actively follows the work of several national and international think tanks including the Centre for Policy Research, the International Justice Mission and the Student Think Tank for Europe-Asia Relations. He hopes to one day work in the field of public policy and regulation.

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by Ainesh Dey

The Indian labour market reflects persistent disparities inclusive of occupational segregation, unequal leadership, limited access to leadership roles and the impact of traditional gender norms as byproducts of complex challenges and opportunities shaped by multifarious historical, societal and cultural factors. Over the years, Indian state and central governments have made multiple labour market reforms that target women. However, the need of the hour centres on the strength of this existing body of reforms, in a manner that avoids unanticipated perverse effects.

While National Samples Surveys (NSS) show that between 1993 and 2011, Indian women’s labour force participation declined from 35 to 24 per cent, despite the context of higher economic growth, a humble 23 per cent of the working age women were in the labour force. Moreover, such declines are visible in high skill professions, given that the percentage of female employees among high return professions (senior officers, legislators and managers) fell from 13 per cent in 2011 to 7 percent in 2016.

In this regard, creation of inclusive pathways for gender- based development prospects alongside targeted efforts to provide leadership development opportunities against the backdrop of the context of shifts in the overall labour landscape, by curbing gender bias and stereotypes, constitute the most prudent course of action. This essay seeks to emphasize this very premise of sustainable and inclusive female involvement in the labour market, thereby shedding light on the critical issues, the dynamics of progress and the prospective recommendations for the fostering of an equitable, diverse and thriving workforce.

The Present Context of Female Participation

The flashpoints of gender discrimination are rather insidious. The most challenging of these include the stigma against women working and migrating. According to economist Arielle Bernhardt, a woman in India “working outside the home drains household status in an extremely patriarchal society”.

As per the 2011 report of the International Labour Organization, about 35.3 per cent of rural women and

46.1 per cent of women working in urban areas attend to domestic duties, up from 29 and 42 per cent respectively in 1993-94. While the report attributes such an unforeseen hike to the increase in household incomes, thereby discouraging women from working and contributing to the economy, the problems mainly stem from four major flashpoints, stated below.

  • Occupational Nature and Gender Wage Disparity:- The gender based occupational segregation as is evident, plagues the Indian labour force even to this day. Given the cyclical nature of work done by women, their conspicuously lower share in the workforce has not been a fresh development. The pre and post COVID-19 context strengthened this premise to an even greater extent.
  • The Low Female Participation Rate, infamously referred to as the LFPR as per recent research, increased by 1.57 pp or 27 per cent not only as a result of economic shock waves generated by the lockdown, but also due to the gender-wage disparity especially in the service sector, arising from over representation of men alongside part time employment for women with lower wages.
  • Barriers to economic empowerment : Additional factors of discriminatory workplace practices, including gender based harassment and career advancement, create hostile environments that discourage women from fully engaging in the labour force. Moreover, the perennial issue of sexual discrimination permeates different spheres of female professional engagement, as pronounced by statistics marshaled by the Pew Research Centre in 2022, stating that only 23 per cent of Indians inclusive of women, out of the sample surveyed, believed in the existence and rapid perpetuation of such practices. Such lack of awareness coupled with inadequate policy interventions consolidate such inequalities on a larger scale.
  • Lack of Direct Benefits Transfers: Direct transfer of benefits are an increasingly important part of India’s social sector infrastructure. However in the case of women, even the targeted minimum income programmes are geared more towards household welfare, without being directed towards women ( Field et al, 2019).
  • Experimentation with broader based gender quotas for public service sector employment: Certain instances such as a 30 per cent reservation for women in government jobs in Rajasthan, including 5 per cent for widows alongside the presence of quotas in specific sectors in Gujarat, may have played a beneficial role, however such have to be implemented on wider role for increased female productivity.

While reservation is one side of the coin, optimum utilization of resources, as a result of the same is another. In India, the latter is still missing, due to stagnation of female Labour Force Participation Rate (LAFRP) at 20-22 per cent, thereby holding up 27 per cent of India’s GDP.

Breaking Barriers:- Policy Reforms and Transforming Gender Inclusion

The identification of the aforementioned disparities implicated in the lower female turnouts, strengthen the pedestal of consideration of further labour policy reforms.

Firstly, while policies to increase the Female Labour Force Participation could be considered separately, it is imperative to streamline skilling programmes which are otherwise blind to different safety and mobility concerns in my opinion. Migration support centers instead of gender based quotas as stated by Artiz Prillaman, can account for curbing of gender based labour market barriers, by consolidating a level playing field for women employees.

Moreover, the grant of subsidies to women-friendly policies via tax benefits, amnesty or even similar schemes could align public and private sector incentives. A classic example is India’s recent maternity leave policy inspired by the Paid Family Leave in California and the Parental Pay Leave in Australia, where the cost is borne by private firms.

As per the TeamLease Report of 2018, out of 1.8 million Indian women in 2018, very few were able to achieve employment as a result of lack of proper implementation of the Maternity Leave Act.

Lastly, the monitoring of quotas and vocational centers alongside necessary complementary policies to enhance female employment can act as “ceilings to FLFP”, per research conducted in 2016, thereby actively reducing both explicit and implicit bias among trainers and women recruiters. Moreover, affirmative action in the case of employment could mimic the success of monitoring labour policies.

Embracing Inclusivity in the Labour Force: Conclusion

The dynamics of gender in the labour force are influenced by a complex interplay of social, economic and cultural factors. While gender disparities persist, there are opportunities to advance inclusivity and empower women to be part of the workforce in general.

The identification of root causes, policy interventions and supportive initiatives are essential in addressing the barriers as mentioned above. Advancing gender parity in the labour force is not only a strategic investment. Leveraging intersectional approaches that account for the diverse experiences and needs of women from different socio-economic backgrounds, regions, and communities is essential to drive meaningful progress.