A Growing Economy with No Women

Written by: Lauren Hutson

India has one of the largest economies in the world and is quickly growing, with a GDP of 2.597 trillion (USD) and an annual GDP growth rate of 6.6%. These numbers starkly contrast women’s labor force participation and employment rates, however. The labor participation rate for women in India is among the world’s lowest and has continued to decrease in recent years even as women’s access to education improves and fertility rates decline. Analyzing factors behind these trends is critical in understanding India’s economy and therefore, how women’s labor participation might impact the country’s economic potential. 

The number of women working in India has fallen from 35% in 1990 to 26% in 2018 and the labor force participation rate for women is currently 31.2%. This means that only around 30% of working age women are actually in the workforce, compared to 80% of men. Furthermore, the data indicates that this drop in female employment is prevalent in both rural and urban areas, hinting at a more widespread issue. 

In the past, women in India have turned to labor-intensive manufacturing and agricultural jobs due to a gender gap in education and professional skills training. This gender gap is due, among other factors, both to cultural beliefs that advanced work positions should be primarily held for men and to the country’s population distribution. 

With two thirds of India’s population living in the countryside, rural women largely tend to their own plots of farmland or seek agricultural jobs close to home so they can also manage the housework. In fact, agriculture currently accounts for over half of women’s employment in India. Still, the manufacturing and agricultural sectors have both been on the decline in recent years. Manufacturing growth has decreased to 1% for the second quarter of 2019 and many agricultural jobs have been replaced by machines and farm technology, reducing demand for workers overall in both of these sectors and particularly for unskilled female laborers. 

Women’s education and literacy rates in India, although still lower than men’s, have increased. According to the 2011 Census, literacy rates are at 74%, with women’s literacy at 65%, starkly different from the country’s literacy rate of 12% in 1947. Fertility rates have also declined. One would expect from these factors that women’s labor force participation would be on the rise, but this is not the case in India for several reasons.

First, professional discrimination against women likely discourages them from working. India’s gender wage gap is significant compared to other countries, with women making only 62% of what men make. This gap is prevalent in all levels of work, but especially among semi-skilled and unskilled workers. There is hesitance in hiring women and discrimination in evaluating their capabilities. In fact, a 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that 84% of Indians agreed with the statement, “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Beliefs like this contribute to a range of gender-based discrimination, from stereotypes to violence. Sexual and verbal harassment can often be found in the work setting and in the commute to and from work, circumstances which pose as a major barrier for women trying to enter the labor force.

Second, while women with no education are frequently forced to work in labor-intensive agricultural and manufacturing jobs, women with some education are excused by their family from this intensive work to take on housework instead. This is likely due to the fact that women with no education often come from the poorest areas of India, and are required to work to support their families. Women whose families can afford to send them to school, on the other hand, are also more likely to have the financial freedom to abide by cultural norms that confine women to the private sphere. Married women are largely expected to stay home, managing family affairs and housework. Even those in the process of obtaining an education are often stopped once they are married, as their first priority becomes taking care of the home. 

These educational inequalities are so stark that trends have actually begun to show that the more education a woman receives in India, the less likely she is to work. Interestingly, this trend actually shifts again for the low numbers of women with higher levels of education in secondary and graduate level, who pursue jobs at slightly higher rates than those with a small or moderate amount of education. 

Although India still has a rapidly expanding economy, the large share of women absent from the labor force presents potential future problems and needs to be addressed. With evolving job sectors and deeply ingrained social standards, India must consider ways to help women enter the labor force. With a population of 1.339 billion which is 48% women, these processes will be essential for the future of India’s economic growth.