Unraveling the Invisibilisation of the Female Labour Force in India
A nation-state characterised by strict gender norms can have multifarious implications. The cultures and practices emanating out of this state benefit one sex at the cost of the ‘second sex’. What is intriguing is that such norms based on gender not only have social implications in the form of discrimination but also intricate real-life economic implications. To put things in context, various research studies have pointed out that India is facing a paradoxical peculiarity, wherein on the one hand it is on a path of economic growth with rising GDPs and improved standards of living, and on the other hand, it is witnessing a decline in the share of females in the workforce.
According to the World Bank, India's Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) has declined from 31.79% in 2005 to 19% in 2021. These numbers become important when we look at findings suggesting that a 10% increase in the female-to-male ratio of workers would increase per capita net domestic product of a country by 8% (Fletcher et al. 2018). An increased FLFP also has substantial social outcomes for women as wage work delays age of marriage and age at first childbirth, increases their decision-making power in the household, and increases the schooling years of their children (Fletcher et al. 2018). As important is the growth of female labour for a country’s social and economic progress, we must first digress into the roles of various societal actors that are behind this mysterious decline.
The State: The Indian state and its policy measures (or lack thereof) had varied outcomes for the working women. The 1991 reforms which facilitated international trade led to large output tariff reductions, especially for larger establishments which consequently increased the working hours of their employees and required more skilled labour. These practices worked against women as firstly, they were not as skilled as men and secondly, ‘The Factories Act 1968’ prohibited night shifts for women and limited their working hours, disincentivising firms from employing women in the post reform period. Even to this day, the Labour Laws of India leaves out the informal sector from its ambit which employs 90% of the female workforce, thus positioning them in vulnerable state when it comes to job security.
The Market: While women must cross a multiplicity of social and economic barriers to become part of the economic process, the market practices have inherently been discriminatory for the Indian women. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, Indian men earn 82% of the labour income while Indian women earn a meagre 18% of the same, reeking of a glaring pay gap. There also emerges a mismatch wherein women prefer regular part time jobs which allows them to maintain a work-life balance to aid in the household responsibilities as well. A lack of availability of such jobs often pushes the women out of the workforce.
The Household: Indian households are the epicentre of the emergence and continuation of prejudice against its women. On average, women spend six hours of their day on domestic chores as compared to men who spend less than one hour. The sexual division of labour, which forces women to be engaged disproportionately in household work, weakens labour market opportunities for women. Gendered labour is deployed so that women continue to be dependent on their family for sustenance, which Nivedita Menon calls “a unit of inequality".
The analyses hints towards the need for a multipronged effort to overcome the demand and supply side constraints hindering women’s participation in the workforce. Firstly, expanding the ambit of labour laws in India to cover the informal sector will help in retaining women in these jobs. Secondly, passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill will ensure increased representation and change of policy in favour of women. Thirdly, imparting necessary skills to women will ensure that they can shift to the formal sector. Fourthly, strengthening implementation of the Sexual Harassment at Workplace law and innovating with provisions such as Work-From-Home can surely be a step in the right direction. Lastly, along with the three factors we have identified above, the intersection of caste as well as urban-rural divide also becomes a crucial aspect that the policymakers need to analyse.
For centuries women have bore the brunt of an unequal society and it is high time that the state and society collaborate to create a conducive environment for women.
Fletcher, Erin K. Pande Rohini and Moore, Charity T. 2018. ‘Women an Work in India:
Descriptive Evidence and a Review of Potential Policies’. Faculty Research Working
Paper Series: 1-19.
World Bank Statistics on Female Labour Force Participation
World Inequality Report 2022
This article is written by Aanchal Singhal who is currently pursuing her Master's in Public Policy at NLSIU (Bangalore)