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India: Why is women’s labour force participation dropping?

More women in India of working age are enrolling in secondary school but that is only one reason why the number of women who are either working or looking for a job is decreasing.

Analysis | 13 February 2013

NEW DEHLI (ILO News) – Women in South Asia are far less likely than men to have a job or to be looking for one.

While 80 per cent of men in the region are either employed or searching for a job, the number for women is a lot lower: 32 per cent.

These low rates are largely due to cultural attitudes and social norms about women in the workplace.

But in some parts of South Asia, women’s participation in the labour market is dropping further and is increasingly being seen as one of the main causes behind the slow growth in employment.

One such place is India. According to the ILO’s Global Employment Trends 2013 report, India’s labour force participation rate for women fell from just over 37 per cent in 2004-05 to 29 per cent in 2009-10. Out of 131 countries with available data, India ranks 11th from the bottom in female labour force participation.

“Despite very rapid economic growth in India in recent years, we’re observing declining female labour force participation rates across all age groups, across all education levels, and in both urban and rural areas,” said ILO economist Steven Kapsos during a presentation of the report in India.

The trend can be partly explained by the fact that increasing numbers of women of working age are enrolling in secondary schools and by rising household incomes, as women in wealthier households tend to have lower participation rates. But this is only part of the picture, according to Kapsos.

“Other potential causes include measurement issues, whereby women’s employment may be undercounted, as well as a general decline in employment opportunities for women, as they face increased competition with men for scarce jobs,” he said. The global financial crisis and deficient monsoon rains in 2009 may have also contributed to the decline.

In terms of declining employment opportunities, occupational segregation appears to play an important role in holding women back: Women in India tend to be grouped in certain industries and occupations, such as basic agriculture, sales and elementary services and handicraft manufacturing.

The problem is that these have not seen employment growth in recent years, which has put a brake on female employment growth. Female employment in India grew by 9 million between 1994 and 2010, but the ILO estimates that it could have increased by almost double that figure if women had equal access to employment in the same industries and occupations as their male counterparts.

"Failure to allow women full access to the labour market is an under-utilization of human resources that holds back productivity and economic growth," said Kapsos.

Strengthening anti-discrimination legislation in employment across all occupations will be essential for expanding employment opportunities for women. In addition, reducing the large gaps in wages and working conditions, often observed between women and men, could help provide a boost to the number of women seeking employment.

Finally, sound labour market information is essential for developing well-informed policies. Further work is needed to sharpen the measurement tools used to analyse women’s participation in the labour market.

The ILO is collaborating with the Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment (MOLE) to host a two-day workshop in New Delhi on 14-15 February entitled "Women's Labour Force Participation in India and South Asia".

Tags: women workers, gender and development, gender equality

Regions and countries covered: Asia, India

Unit responsible: Department of Communication (DCOMM)

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