Women in the workforce: Dismal picture, but immense opportunity waiting to be tapped

A majority of women work in agriculture or in other labour-intensive sectors in the country. Image credit: By CIAT - NP Himachal Pradesh 68Uploaded by mrjohncummings, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30330009

According to a report by Bain & Company and Google, the labour force participation rate (LFPR) of women in India, already amongst the lowest in the world, is taking a further hit as women bear the brunt of the country's unemployment crisis the most. India’s LFPR, which is the share of people in the 16-64 age group who are employed or seeking employment, has seen the sharpest decline in the 15-24 age group.

Despite having half of its population in the working-age group, India is the only country which has seen women’s workforce participation fall so drastically. As per the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, India ranks a dismal 149th position out of 153 countries on Economic Participation and Opportunity for women. India is way behind sub-Saharan Africa which has four of the top 10 best performers. Gender gap in India is amongst the widest worldwide in the category - India has just closed 35.4 per cent of the gender gap and is just slightly better than Pakistan (32.7 per cent), Yemen 27.3 per cent), Syria (24.9 per cent) and Iraq (22.7 per cent).

As per an SDG India-Index Report, 2019-20, the gender wage gap between sectors is also high – as much as 50-75 per cent. A large percentage of those in the workforce is in the informal sector with little or no social protection, while agriculture still has the highest share of women. White-collared jobs are out of reach for a majority of women, and more women are employed in labour-intensive or low-paying jobs such as domestic work, agricultural labour and as salespeople.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there is also a huge disparity between men and women’s care responsibilities. While globally, women perform three times as much work as men, in India, women do as much as 10 times more unpaid work than men. The burden of unpaid work falls on women, and as per a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women spend as much as 352 minutes per day on unpaid work – as opposed to men who spend only 52 minutes – amongst the least.

There are a number of reasons for the low and declining LFPR – among the positive ones are higher education and increase in rural income, however, societal constraints, the burden of family and childcare falling primarily on women, the absence of job opportunities, quality support and assistance and gender wage gaps, have also contributed to this reduced rate.

Further, as routine jobs get automated, women are expected to be hit the most.  Of around 432 million working-age women in the country, approximately 343 million are not in paid work. This will prove to be a major impediment in the way of India fulfilling its sustainable development goal (SDG) of eliminating gender inequalities by 2030. 

This also has huge economic implications. With India’s working-age population breaching the 1 billion mark by 2030, the economic potential of around 400 million women will remain untapped. As per a United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) India study, by raising India’s women participation numbers to the same level as men, the country’s GDP could rise by 27 per cent.

Opportunities exist

Despite the rather dismal picture, the sheer number of women who are employable shows potential. As per the report by Bain & Co in collaboration with Google, titled ‘Women Entrepreneurship in India—Powering The Economy With Her’, a heightened focus on fostering entrepreneurship among women will help generate employment for around 17 crore people in the next decade. An estimated 13.5 million to 15.7 million women-owned and controlled enterprises are creating direct employment for 22 million to 27 million people in India.  

Enterprises created and run by women will have strong outcomes as women entrepreneurs are more likely to hire other women and be less influenced by gender stereotypes. By increasing women’s participation and enabling female entrepreneurship, women can help make a gradual shift from “high fertility, low education and poor health to making more conscious reproductive choices, higher education and better health for self and family,” states the report. Further, women entrepreneurs can also foster innovation - as more women set up businesses, they can focus on and cater to areas and needs which may otherwise be overlooked.

Currently, most of the ventures are single person owned businesses which have low returns and employment. As per the report, only 17 per cent of women-owned enterprises employ hired workers. This needs to change in order to bring more women into the workforce.

The report states that by establishing high growth entrepreneurs with annual revenue or employment growth of more than 20 per cent, enabling willing and ambitious solo and small business owners to scale by providing access to structures knowledge, bringing in more women who are currently not in the workforce, and providing a more financially viable, attractive and aspirational agri-business model, the country can unlock the immense potential that women in the labour force present.

For this, the Government should work towards formulating policies that encourage organisations to recruit more women, and which encourage women to set up more business, facing fewer hurdles. In its India@75 road map, the NITI Aayog had suggested that the government should work towards enhancing the female labour force participation to 30 per cent. A concerted, joint effort is needed between the Government and the private sector to ensure that this immense potential is tapped.