India is home to 17 percent of the world’s women population which is approximately 663 million women. The Female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) had been showing a sharp declining trend over time from 30.2% in 1990 to 17.5% in 2018. It has, however, shown a significant improvement in the last five years and improved to 25.1% as reported in the annual Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2020-21. The trends in female participation rates demonstrate the Feminisation U Hypothesis tracing a U-shaped curve, where female labour force participation initially declines with growth of the economy, as women who were earlier working to make ends meet withdraw from the labour market with rising income. It then rises on account of structural shifts.
India is experiencing structural changes such as decline in fertility rates and expansion of women’s education, which explains the improvement in female labour force participation rate. While this is a significant positive trend, it is still considerably low compared to men (57.5%). Until recently, female LFPR had been at an all-time low in the last three decades as per reports by World Bank, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) and PLFS survey by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). In order to sustain and accelerate the improving LFPR for females, India must adopt a three-pronged approach with active participation, interventions and collaborations on awareness, policy change, implementation and retention initiatives from the trio of samaaj (society), sarkaar (government) and bazaar (business).
It is important for us to understand the historical root causes and current challenges before we design solutions to address the difference in labour force participation rate between men and women. Low support of society for working women arises from patriarchal structures that dictate women to prioritise their domestic responsibilities over professional aspirations. The conflicting demands of household duties and the labour market results in women foregoing their employment. As per a report by NITI Aayog, women in India spend 9.8 times more time than men on unpaid domestic chores. A report by Sattva reveals that deep-rooted social norms and lack of agency leave women with little choice in their employment decisions.
While the government has introduced a number of policies to promote gender equality; lack of convergence in existing initiatives, gender disaggregated data and adequate gender transformative policies by the government, further leads to women dropping out of the workforce. Discrimination and non-implementation of policies by businesses results in lower retention and growth of women workforce in their jobs. While policies such as Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act) and National Crèche scheme have been enacted by the government, there is limited compliance by industries leading to women facing challenges at work and then choosing to drop out of the workforce. A combination of behaviour change communications, resources and actions in the form of collaboration of society-government-business is required to build sustainable solutions for accelerating female labour force participation.
At the heart of all successful movements is active participation of the society to take ownership of change and enable citizens to lead the process of development. Communities need to own and embrace campaigns for attitudinal shifts on the perception of the society to support engagement of women beyond the boundaries of the household. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao is one such campaign which has enabled sensitisation of masses regarding prevalence of gender bias and role of community in eradicating it. This has resulted in improving sex ratio at birth, health, education indicators and attitudinal shifts in the Indian society. However, these interventions cannot be effective if they solely remain the government prerogative or are presented as demands by women.
With men largely controlling the discourse of a heteronormative family institution, male members need to take equal initiative to create awareness and assert rights for their female counterparts through approaches such as participatory learning and action approach which enables communities to identify, address, and solve their challenges together. This can be done by emphasising the value that working women bring to the family, not only through economic incentives, but through insights and experience that contribute to a well-rounded public life for the family.
Women are prone to higher discrimination and sexual harassment at a workplace especially in roles traditionally dominated by men. We need to mobilise people, actions and key stakeholders to create a watershed moment for a safe and encouraging environment in households, communities and businesses for safety and mobility for women. Success stories of women across fields from multiple districts and blocks as role models need to be amplified by creating a focused platform consolidating the success stories of women from the ground. Enabling peer learning circles such as Lean In, organising mentorship programmes for multiple groups will enable dialogue between women and open a world of possibilities. They will inspire women to be more ambitious and imbibe behaviours and mindset for success, among girls, their families and communities.
The focused support of the government to catalyse female LFPR through convergence of their efforts through different ministries is the key to fostering the contribution of women in the economy. Stronger implementation through gender audits and availability of gender disaggregated data for implementation of existing policies such as equal pay for equal work, POSH, crèche services, etc. and enabling incentives for companies with equal gender representation across levels will ensure compliance with the policies enacted. For example: post the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, India witnessed an impressive surge in the number of women owning or managing agricultural land as per a World Bank-backed study.
Gender mainstreaming in existing programmes and enactment of new policies would further enhance the social, economic and political empowerment of women. The equal paternal leave policy will enable men to share childcare responsibilities with women. Concessions for working women in income tax and not clubbing assets of women with men, will enable more wealth being held in the name of women. Passing of the Women's Reservation Bill would increase access for women participation in political leadership roles as in case of 73rd and 74th amendment with better social and economic development outcomes. Also, recognition of unpaid domestic and care work, will bring in a structural shift in changing existing attitudes of society and industry towards women’s role.
The use of existing data and technology applications with a focus on gender will enable us to take a data based lifecycle approach for women. While technology cannot in itself solve societal challenges, it will become a key enabler through AI based technology applications that can provide custom support to different challenges of women based on different archetypes (classified by multiple factors such as level of education, status of employment, socio-economic background, etc.) to form appropriate communities of support and safe spaces, through their entire lifecycle. This will need to be accompanied with improving digital literacy and access for adolescent girls and women.
Dynamic engagement from businesses will play a critical role in ensuring retention of female workers. Mapping of women’s aspirations to available opportunities in the job market, encouraging return to work post break/ maternity leave with effective support and upskilling opportunities are few critical steps to be taken by the industry across the sector. Corporates also need to be compliant with policy guidelines such as equal pay, crèche facilities, POSH, etc. to encourage women to continue work, feel safe and valued. For instance, while sexual harassment cases at offices declined in FY 21 due to remote working, 97% firms are still unaware of the POSH Act. Setting up a Women Skill Impact Bond will enable skilling and retention of women in the workforce. The Impact Bond will work with the interaction of key players such as risk investors with infusion of capital, outcome funders paying premium over investments for outcomes achieved, service providers with strong on ground delivery capabilities working with women and society, with results verified by independent evaluators.
Impact bonds have been successful in delivering results across education and healthcare. The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has also set up a Skill Impact Bond recently with a vision of an ‘employment ready’ young India. These structural changes made comprehensively by society, government and businesses in a collaborative manner suggests a possibility of 10 times return on the amount invested over a period of ten years. This will significantly boost the Indian GDP, moving us in the league of developed nations over the next ten years. As per McKinsey Global Institute’s report, India could achieve an 18-percent increase over business-as-usual GDP, or USD 770 billion by 2025. Given the humongous aspiration and task ahead of us, sustained support of central and state governments, private sector, investors, training institutes, social enterprises, civil society organisations, communities and citizens, is required as key players of society, government and businesses to make gender equality a reality.
Shruti Deora is an Associate Principal and Lead for Ecosystem Engagement and Policy Advisory at Sattva Consulting. She has worked with multinational organisations in India and globally and led engagements with social development organisations, collaboratives, government stakeholders, and international foundations in the development impact space. She’s a Chartered Accountant, an alumna of IIM Kozhikode, and Takshila Institute. Views expressed here are the author’s own.