As the pandemic rolled into India in early 2020, urban women seemed to quit or lose jobs en masse. The urban female participation rate plummeted to a record low of 15.5% in April-June, the first quarter of the lockdown, before improving marginally to 16.1% in the September quarter marginally to 16.1% in the September quarter.
By the last quarter of the year, it had recovered to 20.6%, near its recent trend, indicating the challenging situation for women workers in India.
Despite all the effort and policy support, the female labour force participation has hovered at around 20% for several decades and stood at 22.8% in FY20, a slow rise over 18.6% in FY19 and 17.5% in FY18 as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.
Experts say India needs to provide consistent structural support and flexibility to female workers while changing the approach toward the women workforce. Some of the systemic measures that could be taken include enhancing enrollment and successful completion of education for every girl child, capturing data for unpaid economic activities by women in the overall workforce data and considerable enhancement of social security for unorganised sector female workers, who constitute 90% of the total female workforce in India.
World Bank estimates show that India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world with less than a third of women, defined as 15 years or older, working or actively looking for a job. It had estimated the female labour participation rate in India at 19% in 2020 from over 26% in 2005, even lower than 35% in Bangladesh and 31% in Sri Lanka. “India’s female labour force participation rate continues to be substantially low and we cannot make peace with just incremental progress,” said Rituparna Chakraborty, cofounder and executive vice president, TeamLease Services.
Reasons for decline
Some experts attributed the low female participation rate primarily to taking on greater responsibility for care of children and the elderly at home and more women opting for higher education. “Females in India are not aspiring to work for multiple reasons, primarily because of their additional responsibilities at home or an inclination towards becoming an entrepreneur or pursuing higher education,” said Preethi Rao, associate director, LEAD, at Krea University, a research centre of the IFMR Society.
Other factors include safety issues and the unavailability of facilities to help women continue working while maintaining a work-life balance.
Systemic changes needed
Chakraborty of TeamLease Services said India needs to tackle the problem at the grassroots.
“Government has to make an all-out effort to enroll more and more girls in primary education while arresting the high dropout rates among female students,” she said. “This will enhance female education, which in turn will help more women to become part of the workforce when they enter working age.”
The government has so far looked at female social security from the lens of the organised sector, which is very narrow, said Shyam Sundar. “Focus should be to enhance social security, including medical benefits, health insurance and old age benefits through a gender-oriented universal social security,” he said.
Deloitte India estimates that 65% of women wanted to leave work during the pandemic and a year later.
“For years there has been no conscious appreciation to bring in gender balance as part of business strategy. This, coupled with the inherent bias towards hiring men, citing reasons for greater level of commitment, has kept female participation low,” said Mohinish Sinha, partner, diversity and inclusion, Deloitte India.
“Consistent infrastructure support and policy measures are needed to bring in more and more females into the workforce.”