Lifting the burden keeping Indian women from work

Though women’s employment has increased in India, the quality of employment has remained a challenge.
The image is used for representational purposes only.
The image is used for representational purposes only.FILE Photo | AFP

Women’s work participation across the world has been low and its recovery from the post-pandemic period has been slow. The International Labour Organization’s World Employment and Social Outlook Report for 2023 reflects on this persistent gender gap and pegs women’s participation in the labour market at 47.4 percent, as compared to men’s at 72.3 percent.

Apart from the ILO's highlight of global gender differentials, the World Bank’s Gender Data portal reveals substantial regional differences too—particularly in South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, where the participation of women in the labour force is even lower than in other regions. In India, the 2022–23 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) shows that women’s work participation (WPR) is 35.9 percent—much lower than the global average.

Although there has been a small worldwide rebound in gender parity in the labour market participation rate since 2022, with more women entering the market than men, the inequalities continue to persist. According to a report by the World Economic Forum in 2023, the informal economy has significantly contributed to this recovery for women, with four out of every five new jobs created in the informal sector. Temporary and part-time work arrangements often make it easier for women to balance caregiving and paid work, one of the reasons women are drawn to the informal sector.

However, within the informal sector, women are generally engaged in low-paid employment with extremely limited access to social security and better employment conditions. The growing trend towards greater reliance on technology and digitalization also requires special attention, especially in the context of women workers in the informal sector.

The PLFS data on employment from 2017–18 to 2022–23 paints an optimistic picture of women’s participation. There has been an increase in WPR for women aged 15 years or more, from 22 percent in 2017–18 to 35.9 percent in 2022–23. Urban and rural employment have shown similar trends, with women’s participation increasing from 23.7 percent to 40.7 percent in rural areas and 18.2 percent to 23.5 percent in urban areas over the same time period.

Though women’s employment has increased in India, the quality of employment has remained a challenge. The rise in WPR is mostly attributed to an increase in self-employment, from 51.87 percent in 2017–18 to 65.3 percent in 2022–23. The concern here is, how far does self-employment remain protected and covered under social security provisions? Also, whether self-employment—that is, mostly informal employment—is an informed choice, or whether they are pushed to it due to constraints. One of the significant challenges for women to continue in employment is their engagement in unpaid and care work.

The first all-India time use survey in 2019 revealed 92.8 percent of women workers aged 15 and above devote their work time in unpaid domestic services for household members, while only 31 percent of men spend time on the same activity. Women spend on an average 5.6 hours in unpaid work a day, that is, in domestic and care-giving activities. Women’s time spent in unpaid work is closely linked to their status in employment, as unequal time burdens compel them to opt for part-time, non-regular and vulnerable kinds of employment.

The survey revealed self-employed women spend more time in unpaid domestic work—4.35 hours—as compared to regular workers, who spend 3.3 hours on the same activity. One of the targets of the UN’s sustainable development goals emphasised the need to recognise and value unpaid work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies to improve gender equality.

So addressing unpaid work becomes important while envisioning a future work scenario for women. In January this year, the Union ministry of labour and employment released an advisory for employers to promote women’s workforce participation. Among other things, it provides guidelines to promote a supportive environment for women workers. It highlighted the need to ensure a balance between employment and care-giving responsibilities for both men and women, including implementing family-friendly measures such as paternity, parental and emergency leaves, and flexible work arrangements.

The government has implemented various programmes, the most promising being the Skill India Mission, to contribute towards improving employability. Promotion of self-employment is a priority, with initiatives like Stand Up India that provide loans to women, including those from marginalised communities. Around 9 crore women are connected with self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihood Mission with provisions for collateral-free loans.

Despite these efforts, the rapidly changing world of work and the emergence of new forms of employment require targeted policy intervention for women both in the formal and informal sectors. ILO’s Future of Work Report for 2019 rightly highlighted investing in human capacities and promoting sustainable employment for women from emerging sectors, while emphasising their education, skill trainingand technology to unlock new possibilities.

Promoting greater investments in the care economy will contribute to addressing women’s unpaid work. Therefore, there is a need to invest in capacity-building initiatives, along with financial and digital literacy, for promoting innovation-led entrepreneurship. That would be a more equitable way to the future.

(Views are personal)

Ellina Samantroy | Faculty and coordinator, Centre for Gender and Labour, V V Giri National Labour Institute, Noida

Kanu Priya | PhD research scholar, IIT Kanpur

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