Lavanya Garg

Lavanya Garg

June 16th, 2021 8 min read

Female Labor Force Participation - India’s 10,000 Piece Puzzle

Riya* started paid work at the age of ten after dropping out of school due to financial constraints in her family. Over the past fifteen years, she has been a babysitter, a cook, and a domestic helper. Someone with an ever smiling face who does not complain much, and works tirelessly to create a different life for her daughters, she wants them to get educated and pursue their dreams.

“To get educated and pursue their dreams” – a fairly reasonable aspiration for any mother; but apparently much harder to achieve in certain parts of the world.

To begin on a positive note, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, 2018), the number of out-of-school girls in India fell from 10.3 percent in 2006 to 4.1 percent in 2019. While this improvement in female education is certainly worth celebrating, puzzlingly, the trend line for female labor force participation (FLP, employed women as a proportion of all working age women) is moving in the opposite direction; from 16.4 percent in May-August of 2016 to hovering around 11 percent in early 2020, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

So, why is it that young Indian girls are more likely to go to school, but are less likely to stay in the labor force later on?  

Although informal and in low-paying jobs, Riya’s engagement in the workforce is unfortunately not the reality for many Indian women. And whether it will be the reality for her daughters, remains an open question.

Why the fuss?  

The Indian economy has seen improvements across a great many indicators of women’s advancement including female fertility, which has halved from 1990 to 2020 with Indian women bearing two children on an average today; and female literacy, which has nearly doubled.

But an important indicator where we have seen a decline is India’s FLP. Less women engaged in paid work is a huge missed opportunity, and improving India’s FLP could boost GDP by 27 percent according to the International Monetary Fund.

Hence, the fuss.

This is a puzzle we at Good Business Lab want to help solve through our research. And as a woman in India, this is an issue close to my heart. Being at the receiving end of conservative social (gender) norms, and also interacting with women like Riya on a regular basis who work in households or the factories I visit, affirms my desire to help tackle this issue. In the hope that, collectively, we can move towards actualizing the reasonable dreams that women like Riya have for their daughters.

The pieces of the puzzle

More than 30 percent of women counted outside the labor force in India say they want to work outside the house, according to an analysis of National Sample Survey data by Rohini Pandey, Professor of Economics and Director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, and colleagues. What holds them back?

What can we as a society do to ensure Riya and her daughters’ dreams are not crushed? How can we look at women not as custodians of domestic chores, but human beings who may want to put their abilities to use elsewhere? To be financially independent? And to find meaning, if they wish, outside of the traditional family unit? 

Let’s dive into some clues to this puzzle. 

In a clear flip of the labor force participation rates, 81 percent of Indian women participate in unpaid domestic services.

In contrast, according to the Indian government’s latest time use data, only 26 percent of men do so. Domestic services include child care, cooking, and housekeeping. Whether it is norms or expectations, Indian men and women have different daily demands on their time. 

Riya effectively holds two jobs: she wakes up at 6 am everyday to finish work at her house and make sure her daughters are set for the day before heading to her income-generating work. 

However, women are not a homogenous group; some may feel the pressure of these household demands more than others. 

Farzana Afridi, Associate Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and Kanika Mahajan, Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, in their analysis of the National Sample Survey 2011-12 show that it is actually married women that show a dramatic fall in workforce participation. Over the twenty year period ending 2011-12, in the age group 15-60 years, unmarried women’s workforce participation rose from 37 percent to 50 percent. For married women, this stayed at 20 percent [7]. The underlying factors beckon a deeper dive, but there seems to be a “marriage penalty” at play here. 

In conversation with GBL, Ashwini Deshpande, Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, points out that “when people think of India, and when they think of social norms, they think that women are not allowed to go out because there is rape, and there is sexual violence, et cetera. The real social norm that I think prohibits women from fully participating in paid economic work — provided there is work available — is the social norm that women are predominantly responsible for domestic chores.”

She further highlights that we can not pack this conversation into neat boxes, and that there may be some undercounting of women who engage in the family business or farming and part time work in the official statistics.

A 10,000 piece puzzle meets COVID

Peeling at the nuances of even one of the factors mentioned above can take up an entire research project. In fact, in the realm of puzzles, India’s declining FLP is a 10,000 piece puzzle. 

But what is of interest in this article is how COVID-19 can change the alignment of these pieces. 

The Mckinsey Global Institute estimates that across the world, female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are 1.8 times higher than the male job loss rates. Riya’s employers were considerate enough to continue paying her salary, even when she couldn't make it to work during India’s strict lockdown in early 2020. But, anecdotally, we know that was not the case for everyone, with employer patience running out with more time passing. Especially in feminized sectors such as informal household work, where employers are not bound by any contractual obligations.

The fall in employment in India in April 2020 was 29 percent for men and 39 percent for women, according to analysis of nationally representative data from the CMIE’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) database of 170,000 households by Prof. Ashwini Deshpande. Men lost over 100 million jobs, while women, 17 million. The difference in percentage drops is explained in large part by the existing larger share of men in the paid work economy. Deshpande further found that four out of every ten women working during 2019 lost their jobs during the 2020 lockdown.

Men bounced back better from these losses by November 2020. Post the lockdown last year, 22 percent of migrant women who returned home were not able to find work. The corresponding number for men stood at 15 percent, according to the Azim Premji University Livelihoods Survey.

Given the numbers we started this article with, you can tell this is not good news. Why has the impact on women been disproportionate? Here is a clue: similar factors that lock them out in the first place. 

In a survey of urban and well-off women, Sonalde Desai, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, and Ravinder Kaur, Associate Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, found that the number of women doing the cooking increased from 55 percent pre-lockdown to 79 percent in August 2020. Most of this increase was substitution of paid domestic work that saw temporary suspension due to strict lockdown measures.

At the time of publishing this article in June 2021, India continues to grapple with COVID-19. Many states are in lockdown or are emerging from a lockdown, after a severe second wave. Based on last year’s data, we know that women are more likely to lose jobs and less likely to regain this loss. More current data from 2021 is forthcoming, but insights from the past year would suggest that the pandemic induced worsening of India’s FLP is far from over.

What can the future hold? 

Even if just 30 percent of the women who want to engage in work beyond domestic activities but are not doing so currently are called in, we would see a 21 percentage point increase in FLP. 

That can be a significant jump for India. The problem is that work opportunities for men seem to have rebounded faster than those for women post the lockdown period in India.

Pre-pandemic, the garment industry in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu used to employ around 800,000 workers, of which close to 45 percent were women. There is anecdotal evidence now indicating that there seems to have been a reversal: instead of coming back to work, women in Tiruppur are saddled with domestic responsibilities.

Further, sectors such as hospitality, education, and domestic work, where women are predominantly employed, have been hit harder by COVID-19 than some others. Being constricted to the house has not been safe for all women either, as shown by a reported increase in domestic violence.

Any Silver Lining? 

For women who can work from home, the pandemic seems to be changing perceptions in favor of remote work. Working from home can enable a certain section of the female workforce to easily balance domestic responsibilities and not be forced to choose one over the other. This includes women like me and my aunt, Koel Mallick Singhal, a General Manager at HeidelbergCement. 

“COVID has been a boon for work-life balance for me. I like to be at home, be around my children, and manage the household. Working from home, in fact, helps me clock in more hours, without compromising my domestic duties,” says Koel.

But for Riya and many others like her, who can’t work from home, the story is different. 

Where do we go from here?

We need everyone on board to find solutions — governments, employers, and researchers — and co-create them with those we are solving for. The conversations we have been holding through GBL Access hope to offer a glimpse of exactly that. 

And in the meantime, maybe we can take some individual actions by challenging the status quo in our personal sphere. Next time your mother does unpaid care work, thank her, share the work with her. It is crucial to the development of our society; especially during a global pandemic.

As Professor Deshpande put it during her GBL Access interview, “All across the world, what allows people to participate in "productive" work is the fact that women take the bulk of the so-called unproductive work within the home.”

*Name changed upon request of interviewee.


Women Left Behind: India’s Falling Female Labor Participation

Macro trends data

State of Literacy Report

Girls’ enrolment in schools on the rise, their dropout remains high; here’s why

Gender parity can boost India's GDP by 27%: WEF co-chairs

How Indians spend time: Women do the unpaid work; lots of socialising; almost zero volunteering

Why Indian women don’t want to work

The Visible and Invisible Barriers to Indian Women Working

‘Women are hit hard by economic fallout of COVID-19’

Women and Work in India: Descriptive Evidence and a Review of Potential Policies

Can covid-19 change the work culture at home for men and women?

The price of pandemic is being paid by women

One year since lockdown 1.0: Share in workforce already falling, Covid-19 job losses hit women harder

Locked-down: Domestic Violence Reporting in India during COVID-19

Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women