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June 14th, 2021 10 min read

Unpacking India’s declining female labor force participation rate with Prof. Ashwini Deshpande

As part of the ‘Future of Women’s Work’ theme of the first series of GBL Access, our co-founder and Chief Development Officer, Prof. Achyuta Adhvaryu had a conversation with Ashwini Deshpande who is a Professor of Economics at Ashoka University. She works in the field of economics of discrimination, focusing on caste, gender and affirmative action. Deshpande is behind the recently set up Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University — a portal where users can create interactive graphics and find patterns within datasets using data that’s publicly available. 



A large part of the conversation revolved around the worrisome decline of India’s female labor force participation rate (FLPR) which was 21 percent in 2019, according to the World Bank (modeled ILO estimate). The number has fallen for the last fifteen years in India, making India break away from the inverse U-shaped relationship between FLPR and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita which is common for most countries.

“The story is a little more complicated than conservative social norms militating against women’s public visibility,” Deshpande said, before delving into the three big issues that lead to such low levels of FLPR. 


Women’s work is often not counted

The common criticism of our existing measurements of productive work is that women’s labor in the household, which often includes chores such as cooking and cleaning, as well as caregiving for children and the elderly, is not counted as work. But when Deshpande talks about women’s work not being counted, she is not referring to household work, but to the actual economic activities that women undertake in their family enterprises. “Be it farms, livestock rearing or running grocery stores, the success of most such family enterprises in the country is on the backs of unpaid family labor by women.” While a very large portion of Indian women do such work, they, or their family members do not count it or report it as “work”. 

“I’m not saying that there is no problem, but we need to remember that the economic work of women does not get counted adequately,” she said. 

Prof. Deshpande gave the example of the 1998 time-use survey conducted in six states of the country where a new section of classified activities called the extended SNA (system of national accounts) was added. The results showed that when the work under SNA as well as extended-SNA activities were combined, women were found to be doing more work than men. Taking a more recent example of the survey she and fellow economist Naila Kabeer undertook in West Bengal, she reported that tweaking the National Sample Survey questions led to the FLPR to go from 17 percent up to 58 percent. 

To explain how this difference occurs, Deshpande referenced the interesting case of a survey piloted in Delhi which shows the contrast between the results of surveys which ask about workers, and surveys which ask about work. The survey avoids asking “who are the workers in the household?”, to which respondents typically answer with just the names of male members. Instead, it asks the respondent what the family does for a living, and then follows it up with “who works on these activities?”, to which the answer usually includes the women members. Prof. Adhvaryu reflected that this kind of reporting indicated a subconscious bias in the minds of the respondent that women’s work is not important. 

“So, part of the solution is changing the way labor force statistics are collected so that this kind of work gets recognised as economic work,” Deshpande stressed.


Change in availability of rural work

Calling for a nuanced look at what’s stopping women from taking up paid work, Deshpande said we cannot simply blame it on restrictive social norms and worries about women’s safety. Reminding us that in the last 15 years, when Indian women’s recorded labor force participation declined, their education levels skyrocketed, she asked, “So what are women doing? They are getting educated, but social norms are keeping them out of the labor force? That simply doesn’t make sense.”

She pointed out that rural tribal women have registered the highest decline in labor force participation, and how they have not traditionally been subjected to the kind of restrictions and taboos that is common among upper caste women. 

“The other explanation,” she said, “is the change in rural areas that has not generated enough work on a sustained basis.” Specifically, a lot of agricultural technologies developed in the recent past have replaced women’s work in agriculture. Additionally, as many men have migrated to urban areas, the women have been left with no family work — such as farms, livestock, fisheries, etc. — to take part in. 

“Everybody focuses on the supply side story. We forget that women want to work, but there’s no work available,” said Deshpande, pointing out that in surveys, women overwhelmingly say yes when asked if they would work if work was available. But, in rural India, other avenues for paid work for both men and women are hard to find these days given that India is going through a “period of no-jobs and no-growth”. The availability of paid work opportunities within the village becomes very important, if you consider the next issue that was discussed.


The one social norm that we need to worry about

In a situation where there are work opportunities available for women, then “the real social norm that prohibits women from participating fully in paid economic work” according to Deshpande, “is the social norm that women are predominantly responsible for domestic chores.” 

Hence, even if there are jobs in the nearest city, with poor transportation facilities, the woman will not be able to travel to work as well as do her household duties. 

In fact, the pandemic has shown how this issue is not restricted to rural women, or India alone. The United States of America’s labor bureau statistics show that women who were earlier in the labor force, are now dropping out due to extended school closures. “It’s time for us to recognize, the world over, that the biggest social safety net programme is women’s unpaid labor in the household,” Deshpande emphasized, “Things that keep the world running; that allow for people to participate in productive work.” The household burden is especially high for the Indian woman, as the 2019 time-use survey showed: women had at least 10 times more household duties than men. 


Right time for change

The economists discussed the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic could have on women’s participation in the labor force, and the kind of changes that are likely as we emerge from this disaster. While there was a rise in women’s participation in the labor force in the immediate aftermath of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the second World War, as women and widows pitched in to support their families, Deshpande observed that the pattern is not repeating this time. 

However, the lockdown has shown everyone the importance of house work in getting other work done. And if men step up to equally contribute in activities traditionally reserved for women — such as cooking, cleaning and child and elderly care — then the shift would make it possible for more women to take up and sustain paid work. “Even if it’s a slight shift, but if it happens in a sufficient number of families, I think that is the way to change that norm as well,” she said. 

Pointing out how gender gaps are more prevalent in low-paying and entry-level jobs in India — what’s called as the “sticky floor” (instead of the “glass ceiling” which is prevalent elsewhere) — Deshpande stressed on the importance of broader changes to make it more convenient for women to take up paid work. Starting from provision of clean toilets in the workplace, and employers who understand the competing demands of women, it could include government programmes to provide low-cost housing in cities. For this, we need more women in decision-making powers — both in companies as well as in the government. “As long as women are not part of decisions that impact their lives, there will always be an issue of their needs not being adequately represented,” she said. 



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