Issues of India's Female Labor Force

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Indian media and intelligentsia were ecstatic about the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as the new Defense Minister on September 3, 2017, the first time a woman has held this position full-time (with the exception of 1975 and 1980 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also held the defense portfolio). While, the appointment of women in upper ranks of government is a promising sign, it is not representative of the Indian female labor force participation more broadly as, there is disparity in terms of their participation in labor market, parliament and, civil services. India has had a female Prime Minister and a female President but that has not changed the country’s alarming gender inequality. According to the Global Gender Report from 2015 by the World Economic Forum, India was ranked at 139 out of 145 countries in terms of economic participation of women.

Decline in India’s Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP) rate

Since 2005, India’s labor force participation rate for women of working age has declined dropping to a low of 26.9% in 2016 from a recorded high of 36.8% in 2005.  A recent World Bank paper, Precarious Drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labor Force Participation in India, postulates that rise in family income and female literacy are causes for this steep decline in female labor force. As women get more educated and their husband’s income increase, it leads to income stabilization and casual workers, mainly women drop out of workforce. India’s rural female literacy increased from 46% in 2001 to 61.5% in 2015-2016, whereas the urban female literacy increased from 72.86% in 2001 to 81.4% in 2015-2016.

The U-hypothesis predicts that female labor force participation (FLFP) rate is highest among illiterate population but as the literacy increases to secondary education, the FLFP rate drops and then starts rising again with college education and higher. India is not an exception to this and other countries such as China and Sri Lanka also experienced a drop in FLFP rate but what makes the Indian case unique is the sharp decline within such a short period. The sharpest decline in participation is among female high school graduates as there is social stigma attached to working in non-skilled and low paying jobs. What is also a matter of concern is the decline in FLFP rate among Indian women regardless of their educational attainment.

Issues that Need to be Addressed to Increase Rural FLFP Rate

The FLFP rate has declined for both rural and urban women in India. However, the FLFP rate decline for rural women has been steeper. Since 1990, women in rural India have gained enough education to move from illiteracy to low and middle levels of education but experts argue that this has not reached sufficiently high levels to ensure they earn enough income. To ensure higher FLFP participation in rural areas, the government needs to create non-farm rural jobs for women with lower secondary and higher secondary education.

Government policies also need to address social norms regarding female employment and invest in jobs that are attractive for women especially in non-farm rural sector. In most rural areas, the primary motivation to work for illiterate women is the need to provide a basic income for their family. As their husband’s income increases and they attain more education, farm jobs are no longer lucrative or socially acceptable and thus the creation of non-farm rural jobs would facilitate female participation.

Family members such as husband and in-laws also play an important role in female employment decisions. Take for example, Jyoti Kadian, a rural woman, who has a diploma in mechanical engineering and works at a factory in Haryana. Although, her fiancée is supportive of her working, he has made it clear that only a government job would be deemed respectable enough for her. Jyoti states that people in her village view private jobs as low-paying, unstable and lacking in prestige. Jyoti’s example highlights the importance of social norms, the role of family members in female employment decision-making and thus the imperative to create attractive non-farm rural jobs.

An added factor is the rising number of sexual assaults and attacks on women and thus the need for provision of security for women to encourage their participation outside the house. In rural areas where caste and family alliances prevail, the stigma of sexual assault is so pervasive that the first response to a rape is often silence, or victim shaming.

Addressing the Urban FLFP Rate

Turning to urban India, lack of attractive jobs, issue of provision of security and prevalence of patriarchal norms regarding female employment are the key factors that have ensured a low FLFP.  Compounding this is India’s employment problem where approximately 12 million Indians enter the job market each year. There are thus not enough jobs to absorb the growing female working-age population. Women who are more educated and in a secure economic environment prefer not to work in low-skilled jobs due to the social stigma attached to such jobs. In addition, white-collared jobs are not enough to absorb the growing female (or male) working-age population.

Since 2009, the stigma attached to women working in the manufacturing sector has declined but, enough jobs have not yet been created in this sector. Government policies that help create more lucrative jobs and a female friendly workplace in this sector would be beneficial.

Most importantly, the lack of security for women also prevents them from working outside the house. Women and their family members often weigh factors such as security and  travel distance from home to work before accepting employment. Given the rising cases of sexual assault and rape in India, especially in the urban centers, women are more cautious in their approach to work outside the house. Moreover, the prevalence of sexual harassment at workplaces also discourages them from pursuing opportunities outside their home. In recent years there have been many high-profile cases tied to sexual harassment at workplace.

Societal norms discouraging female employment, often enforced by husband or in-laws also prevent women from working. Media campaigns that educate family and help change societal norms would help

Indian women in Parliament and Civil Services

Indian women are underrepresented both in the parliament and in the prestigious civil services. As per the 2017 UN World Ranking of the number of women parliamentarians, India ranked 148 out of 193 countries and there are only 11.8% of women MPs in the Lower House of India’s parliament. The percentage of seats held by women in parliament for South Asia as a whole and OCED countries are 19.4% and 28.19% respectively.

The women’s reservation bill that was first pushed in 1996 has yet to be implemented. Despite promises of reserving one-third of Lower House seats for women, most major political parties are reticent to pass the women’s reservation bill.

At the local council levels, in 1992, the government passed the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts that reserved one-third of seats in gram panchayats (village council) and Nagarpalikas (urban local government) in order to increase the local political representation of women. Studies have shown that this has resulted in not only an increase in public services but also an increase in public services which are deemed important for women such as drinking water facilities.

The Union Public Service Commission, a federal constitutional body that conducts the civil service examinations, stated in its 2015-2016 Report that in 2014 of the 446,623 candidates, only 24.5% were females, and of these only 23% passed the examination and were selected as civil servants. In contrast, of 418,343 British civil servants, 54% are women. India’s number of female civil servants are abysmally low when compared to the overall female population of 48.5%. According to experts, the reasons for these are social customs discouraging female employment and lack of quality education.


Falling FLFP rate is a matter of concern and is something that the government of India should make a priority. India loses a significant portion of its GDP due to lower FLFP rate. If India increases its women’s labor force participation by 10% by 2025, India would increase its GDP by around 16%.

Government policies thus need to be centered around creating jobs which are attractive for women, addressing social norms against female employment and ensuring proper law and order so that women can work outside. In addition, low percentage of female MPs and civil servants should propel government both to pass bills such as the Women’s Reservation Bill and also create opportunities to ensure an increase in female civil servants.