Feminise India’s growth trajectory

Feminise India’s growth trajectory

The persistent fall in female-male ratio in workforce participation and rising vulnerable employment for women across sectors present a grave concern, especially for an economy that continues to battle a macro-jobs crisis. The problem warrants a structural reorientation of our employment and growth policies.

The International Labour Organization says that only 32.8% of women formally participate in the labour force in India, whereas 81.1% of men do. Further, in recent years, the rise of male incomes across sectors have been followed by a reduction in female labour force participation, particularly in urban areas. The proportion of women employed in the “vulnerable” jobs also remains high, at around 80% of the overall workforce.

What is interesting is how most changes to the female-male labour force participation have largely been shaped by the gendered sectoral growth of employment in India, where most growth in jobs has been seen in low-skilled service industry and construction (where gender inequality is highest). Growth in the medium to high-skill (white collar) service industries has been insufficient to draw in more working-age women in recent years. Most jobs growth in areas of construction, manufacturing, trade & transport have widened the female-male workforce gap. In areas such as health, education and IT, maintaining a balanced workforce is still not a priority.

To treat the problem as simply stemming from lack of educational opportunities is unfair. An exclusive focus on improving the education enrolment rates for women, as important as it may be, has proven to be only partially successful in reducing gender inequality in both workforce participation and in wages. The lower female enrolment in secondary and tertiary education also affects employability scenario for women and their employment expectations.

Another critical area to understand is the burgeoning care economy, where maximum female employment participation remains endowed economy

with a high degree of unpaid work. The informal nature of their employment exacerbates the issue. Women in agriculture are expected to provide nutrition, partake in subsistence agriculture, perform elder care. With an average of 25 hours a week spent on household work and five hours in care and community work, women are afflicted by significant time poverty.

Data shows that despite this, women and men spend equal time on average in agricultural work. Not only is this economically relevant to a lapse in productivity, it further affects the family environment, which has generational effects — daughters of women in such situations typically must either aid with or perform an equivalent quantity of unpaid work, thus increasing opportunity costs for their time in school, leading to compromise in the attainment of skills.

The care economy’s relevance further prompts a revaluation of the aggregate value of “work” itself. As per a 2019 Oxfam report, a woman, on average, still spends more than five hours on unpaid work each day as compared to the average man, who spends about 30 minutes on similar work.

With one of the largest pay gaps in the world, where women earn 25% lesser than men, a considerable focus is required on understanding the gendered distribution of workforce as well as in earnings, critical in India’s growth context and policy landscape.

At the same time, the gendered methodology of (employment) data extraction also requires a categorical focus on capturing other gendered groups -- the LGBTQ community -- in highlighting their vulnerabilities and challenges in terms of lack of employment opportunities in the organised workforce. Concerns regarding jobs and better quality jobs require a fundamental restructuring of employment data collation.

Womanhood (along with other gendered identities) thus has multiple vulnerabilities attached to it. These vulnerabilities are not shaped by varying economic circumstances but from evolving social norms, government policies and patriarchal oppression. Across the social layers of caste and class, women in India often suffer more from such identity-based payoffs.

To tackle such identity-based payoffs, growth policies require a structural reorientation in their outlook. Gender-balanced sectors of employment (say, in healthcare and education) need more public support to increase female-male employment ratio. At the same time, other sectors (IT, manufacturing, construction etc.) need exclusive focus on enabling a more gender-inclusive employment landscape. Structural shifts are required from women to move out from vulnerable areas of occupations, say from agri-based employment in rural areas to organised manufacturing and service industries.

Greater upward social and income mobility for women thus requires a comprehensive feminisation of macroeconomic policy focus across states, mediated with the right set of incentives for not only maximising female-employment expectations, but also their overall well-being.

(Mohan is Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, OP Jindal Global University; Manivannan is a graduate of Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities)