How do we get our women back?

By Michelle Thomas

When India opened its doors to liberalisation over 25 years ago, it set off on a journey of growth that today makes it one of the fastest growing large economies in the world with a growth rate of approximately 7% in 2017. Add to this the growing participation of middle-income households, and the country has a clear advantage for the future.

However, in the same period, the proportion of women in the Indian labour force has been falling – especially in rural areas – declining from 34% in 2000 to just over 27% in 2012. Compare this with the global rate of female labor force participation which had increased to almost 52% by 2008. As recently as 2016, the UK’s female labour force participation was at almost 60%, with the US, Germany and Spain all hovering at around 55%, while Iceland and Nepal were at around 80%.

India have more women working in the informal economy (One report pegs this at over 85% of India’s female workforce), which could be resulting in the under-reporting of labour-force participation, but the gap is too big to be explained away by just that.

So, what’s going on?

First, some socio-cultural context
In South Asia especially, a woman’s role in society is constrained by gender and familial relations and her activities are confined to (unpaid) care work. In urban areas, being married reduces the probability to be employed in regular salaried work by 10%. Single women are seen to participate more than married women. This is true of widowed women as well. A study on female labour in urban Delhi stated that working outside the home is a decision that is taken by the entire household and is dependent on existing household workload and safety concerns.

Women also tend to be the ones responsible for care-giving, especially childcare. For example, in the US, women do 1.6 times more unpaid work than men while in India that goes up to 10 times. Religion also plays a factor in determining outcomes. Data shows that Muslim women in the labor force has a much lower likelihood in both rural and urban settings.

And, some economic context
As is the case with many emerging countries, workplace discrimination is prevalent – there is a 25% wage gap between men and women, and women in leadership positions are still few and far between (15 per cent, ranking third lowest in the proportion of leadership roles held by women globally). Also, women tend to work only in certain sectors and industries such as agriculture, services, handicrafts, academics etc. Even though some of these industries have seen employment growth, the rate at which women have joined these sectors is still stagnant, and there are few opportunities for training and exposure to include more women.

More recently, many women are becoming more entrepreneurial and starting their own enterprises. Though this a step in the right direction, it still needs policies that are women-centric and allow for women to get access to funding, training, mentoring, capacity building and role models.

It’s about demand and supply too
In the last few decades, India has moved from a primarily agrarian society to a service-oriented society. Wages in the agriculture sector are among the lowest in India and women withdraw from this sector as soon as they are more educated. Unfortunately, the decline in agriculture sector has not seen a parallel growth in the manufacturing sector where most women with middle and secondary levels of education can look for employment opportunities.

What is needed for gender inclusion

  1. Access to education and training programmes

The manufacturing sector needs to open its doors towards the inclusion of a female labour force. Corporates should be obliged to provide training, allowing for wage parity and enabling an environment where re-entry into the workforce is possible. Companies like Amazon, Genpact, Intel are starting to do this by offering ‘re-entry’ opportunities and programmes for women.

Women and girls also need to be exposed to STEM and other technical fields allowing for breaking some of the societal barriers associated with these sectors. Short courses for women should be introduced that will allow them to upskill themselves to join the labour force and boost their confidence, enabling them to negotiate for better conditions. The “Skill India” mission goal should center around women and vocational training for women.

  1. Institutional mechanisms for facilitating better childcare

It is imperative for government and the private sector to allow for reintegration of women who are recent mothers. India’s Flipkart now offers six months of maternity leave plus four months of flexi-working hours with full pay while Facebook, Microsoft and Adobe in the US all offer between two and four months of paternity leave too. Exactly a year ago, the Indian government mandated that women in the organized sector will get 26 weeks of maternity leave that companies that have 50 employees or 30 women employees, whichever is lower, should have crèches and facilitate ‘working from home’ for new mothers. (Also read Best Companies for Women in India)

  1. Enhance safety for women in workplace

As part of the inclusion of more women in the labour force, corporates and start-ups should ensure that they provide safe working environment for women. This includes setting up of sexual harassment cells and grievance cells and a redressal system that allows them an opportunity to voice their concerns. A 2016 US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report found that while up to 85% of women experiences workplace harassment, almost 75% of workplace harassment incidents go unreported. Corporates with a large female labour force should provide transportation facilities, especially if there are night-shifts involved.

  1. More job opportunities in the private sector

The private sector in India has a big role to play to break some of these stereotypes and barriers. More women should be given an opportunity to be at leadership positions, enabling them to participate in decision making. The recent provision of Companies Act, where one woman should be mandatorily be part of the governing board, is a step in the right direction. Goldman Sachs runs a programme to provide women entrepreneurs with business and management education, mentoring and networks, access to capital and more. And Iceland made history earlier this year when they became the first country to enforce equal pay for men and women.

  1. Better infrastructure for working women

With changes in the economic structure, we are seeing many women moving away from their homes for employment opportunities. These women are exposed to unsafe and unsuitable living conditions that could be a deterrent for them to join the labor force. This needs to be recognized and facilities should be provided for such women. An opportunity exists in giving financial assistance to organisations, that can ensure that women, especially single, divorced and separated women have a safe haven where they are able to maintain a professional life irrespective of their social status.

Ultimately, this is something that concerns all of us.

It is a well-researched and documented fact that women who join the workforce enable economic development in a country. A recent McKinsey report shows that by bridging the gender gap in the labor force, India stands to gain as much as 2.9 trillion of additional annual GDP in 2050.

We need to start applying a gender lens across all policies and frameworks, training and education, infrastructure and support so that we can create a safe, thriving, fruitful working environment for half of this world’s population.


Michelle is with Dasra and provides support to its portfolio organizations in areas of strategy development, leadership development, fundraising capability and operational support in HR and Finance. Before Dasra, she co-founded Unconvention, a platform for early-stage social entrepreneurs as part of Villgro, where she scaled the programme to 15 cities in India with over 60+ global and local partnerships. She also co-founded ProjectKHEL, a novel program that uses sports and activity based games to achieve development outcomes. She graduated from School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University with a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) and specialization in Gender and Public Policy. She is also a graduate from IIFM with a specialization in Rural Management.

Leave a Comment