Barriers to Entry

The real reasons behind India’s dwindling female workforce

Years of data analysis by ILO economists show a gradual decline in the proportion of Indian women looking for and going to work. AMIT DAVE / REUTERS
01 August, 2013

FIVE YEARS AGO, when her husband beat her up and kicked her out of their single-room tenement, Fiza Bi, who has never been to school, did what few other women in Seelampur, in north-east Delhi, have ever done: she got a job. “My husband had said no to me working, but when he threw me out of the house, I had two kids still living with me and rent to pay,” Fiza told me. “I needed to feed them. So I asked some of the women whom I knew worked in a factory to take me along, and I got a job cutting threads off jeans at a factory in Gandhi Nagar. It took me half an hour to walk there, and I got paid Rs 4,000 every month for a six-day week.” Fiza is in her forties, but with her raven hair and large, worried eyes, she could pass for the mother of her two-year-old granddaughter. Last year, Fiza’s husband re-entered her life, visiting her once a week and paying the rent. But he had one rule: she had to quit her job. So Fiza re-joined the ranks of Seelampur women who aren’t looking for paid work. “My husband gives me a few hundred from his salary of Rs 9,000,” she said. “It’s not enough, but there’s nothing I can do.”

What had made Fiza’s decision to get a job particularly unusual is that Seelampur has the lowest proportion of working women of any district in the capital, a city that itself has the lowest proportion of working women in metropolitan India. Just 5 percent of women in Seelampur told census enumerators in 2011 that they had done even one day’s paid work in the preceding year—half the rate for Delhi. In India in 2012, just under a quarter of women counted themselves as part of the workforce.

The crisis of female employment in India is severe by any benchmark. According to the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO), just ten countries in the world have lower rates of female participation in the workforce than India, and no country at a comparable stage of development is anywhere close. Bangladesh, where women find mass employment in the garment sector—as the demographic profile of the victims of the Rana Plaza crash chillingly showed—has over half its women aged 15 and above in the workforce. East Asia has had these numbers for decades. “Just under a decade ago, urbanising Turkey was in a similar situation, but it is pulling away too,” said Sher Singh Verick, a senior employment specialist in the Delhi office of the ILO.

The lack of female participation in the workforce is an economic problem in its own right—and it’s also a symptom of deeper social issues. For one, women in India bear a disproportionate share of domestic and childcare duties, leaving little time for paid work. Then there is “culture”, that great intangible, which is left to explain not only the obstacles in Fiza’s path out of the house, but also the fact that female workforce participation rates are low even among the class that can pay for childcare and domestic help. And here begins a cycle: the depressed social status of women prevents them from working, and their resulting lack of financial independence depresses their social status.

What makes this crisis even more worrying is that female workforce participation in India isn’t only extraordinarily low, it’s also falling—despite what economic theory would have predicted. Some people have argued that this reflects positive changes in the economy, but an investigation by the ILO suggests the opposite.

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. It is entirely likely that the Indian statistical system undercounts many types of unorganised work, which constitutes roughly 90 percent of all employment in India. In addition, as the former chief statistician of India Pronab Sen has written, insufficiently trained part-time enumerators are particularly bad at asking women probing questions. As a result, the workforce figures may not have captured women who did not immediately see their own work as economically productive or, more fundamentally, important. Although Kapsos and Silberman agree that the 2009–10 work participation rates for women were likely underestimated, they found that the impact of this, too, was relatively insignificant. “Over a longer period of time, measurement errors explain only a very small part of the decline in female employment,” Kapsos explained in an email. India’s current chief statistician, TCA Anant, took a similar view. “The problem with enumerators has in my view been overstated,” he told me.

Contrary to all three of these theories, Kapsos and Silberman have concluded that the decline in female employment in India is for the most part explained by “occupational segregation”—the concentration of women in certain sectors of the economy. According to Kapsos and Silberman, these sectors aren’t adding many jobs, and, in more thriving sectors, women are under-represented. In eight of the ten sectors that added the most jobs over the last 15 years, Kapsos and Silberman found that women’s share of this employment growth was less than a third. In the other two—teaching and crafts—it was still less than half.

Although the most common image of the working woman in India is of a call-centre or IT worker, rural women predominantly work in agriculture, and urban women in manufacturing, often of the low-skilled, unorganised sort that Fiza did. The Tiruppur-Coimbatore belt in western Tamil Nadu, for example, produces 90 percent of India’s hosiery and generates exports worth Rs 12,000 crore every year; it has some of India’s highest rates of female employment. Many of these workers are unmarried girls from rural Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh who do skilled work for 12-hour shifts, six days a week, for which they get Rs 6,000 per month.

Although culture is an important driver of female workforce participation, women’s employment is of course also embedded within the general economy. When the American and European recessions hit, export orders dried up, hundreds of Tamil Nadu’s small hosiery manufacturing units shut shop, and an estimated 35,000 workers—over half of them women—lost their jobs.

In Seelampur, women employed in factories feel the squeeze of working in low-margin units around which the huge pool of surplus labour that is the megapolis of Delhi swirls. (Seelampur itself has the country’s highest population density, with over 37,000 people fighting for every square kilometre.) Rajani, whose husband does construction labour, got paid 50 paise for every pair of jeans that she snipped the spare threads off. When both her young children fell ill, she had to quit her job to look after them. “When I went back to my boss, he said I would now get 50 paise for cutting the threads and stitching a button,” she told me. “Before, that would earn me at least Rs 2. How can I do more work for less money?” It took less than a day to replace her.

All this is happening in an economy that added no net new jobs in the last five years. While industrialised nations such as Japan are actively encouraging more women to join the workforce to make up for a quickly ageing population, India doesn’t necessarily need more people to join the workforce just yet: the current supply of labour far outstrips demand, and the imbalance is getting worse. But the low participation of women says worrying things about what they experience inside and outside their homes—things that the numbers cannot show but the women of Seelampur articulate. What’s more, there’s little indication that the restrictive social conditions that help keep women out of the workforce are going to get better any time soon.

In house after house, women told me that they would like to work but their families do not allow it, and that women like Fiza are doing right by their children. The men said that there is “no need” for their wives to step outside the home. Fiza’s 20-year-old daughter, Heena, did the same work as her mother, but for Rs 3,500 per month at a factory within Seelampur. She worked both before and after her marriage, even after the birth of her first daughter, whom she’d leave with her mother-in-law. But with a second baby on the way, her husband left her, and she quit her job and moved across the alley to her mother’s home in the vast resettlement colony—or pucca slum—that is J Block, New Seelampur. “He doesn’t live here,” Heena said of her absentee husband. “But he will not let me leave the kids with my mother and go to work.”

“When I was working, I never had to wait for every Monday to see if he would come and if he would bring money,” Fiza said of her lost job and her regained husband. Without a change in the social expectations of women, the quality of social security and the nature of job creation, it’s not going to be easy for women like her to get back to work.