According to the Global Gender Gap report 2020 by the World Economic Forum, India has one of the widest gender gaps in women’s economic participation and opportunities. India ranks 145th out of 153 countries in the economic participation index. Only around 25% of women, compared with 82% of men in India, work. Apparently, Indian women choose to stay away from the workforce! Furthermore, female estimated earned income in India is a mere one-fifth of male income, which is also among the world’s lowest (144th). Women only account for 14% of leadership roles (136th) and 30% of professional and technical workers. Another report from McKinsey Global Institute suggests that women’s contribution to GDP in India has the lowest among all regions in the world. Considering the recent economic development and improvement in women’s education rate in India, it’s quite surprising that such a huge number of women prefer not to work. This post tries to explore why women in India stay away from the workforce.
Why So Many Women in India stay Away From The Workforce?
It is very important to understand the root causes of Indian women’s persistently low participation in the workforce. There are underlying cultural and social barriers combined with poor access, lack of resources, and poor policies behind Indian women’s absence in the workforce.
Working is prohibited for Women
Many women in India are not allowed to work! You’ll often meet women in India who would tell you that their husband or family don’t want or allow them to pursue a career. For married Indian women, doing anything against the family’s approval is almost impossible. Traditionally Indians believe that women’s participation in the workforce will negatively affect family, domestic work, and child care.
Underlying social attitudes about the role of women are, arguably, some of the biggest barriers India’s women face. Traditionally men didn’t like their daughters or wives to earn money. For them, working with other men is equivalent to compromising women’s purity and safety. Furthermore, people perceive women’s absence at home negatively impact the well being of the entire family and the upbringing of the children. Some families look down upon women’s attempts at economic freedom.
McKinsey did a global survey where they asked two questions to both men and women- “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women” and “When a mother works for pay, the children suffer.” Half or more of the respondents in India agreed with both statements.
The Burden of Unpaid Work
Globally, women spend roughly three times the amount of time spent by men on unpaid work. In India, the situation is more extreme. Women perform 9.8 times the amount of unpaid care work than men. Indian men typically do not share household or child care responsibilities. Women living with their husband’s families face more discrimination as the division of labour is very unequally distributed in patrilocal families. Unable to cope with such demanding responsibilities at home, many women drop out of the workforce after marriage or childbirth. The huge burden of unpaid care work on women explains why many women in India prefer to stay away from the workforce.
Mindset and Culture
Not only men, but many women themselves prefer to follow traditional gender roles. They think that their responsibilities primarily lie in taking care of the families. They do not recognize the benefits of economic independence. Some women are raised in an environment that doesn’t encourage or equip them to thrive in the professional world. They lack the confidence to hone the necessary skills to be professionally successful.
In some cases, women raised with orthodox values, often feel guilty about seeking career opportunities or higher education. For instance, in high school, a girl told me that she would never work as she thought by doing so she would steal the career opportunity of a guy!
World Economic Forum suggested, if the Government compensates the unpaid work done by Indian women in the same way as paid work, it would contribute $0.3 trillion to India’s economic output. Indian women do most of this unpaid work willingly and it provides great satisfaction to them and their families.
Lack of opportunities
Lack of work opportunities could be a significant barrier for women to pursue a job of their choice and is a reason for many women in India to stay away from the workforce. In the rigid patriarchal environment, small businesses and many other sectors are monopolized by men. In the absence of a growing manufacturing industry, women in India have very limited opportunities to work.
In rural areas, women do participate in agriculture work. The situation is somewhat better in big cities where the opportunities are more diverse. In large cities, women primarily work in service industries. The opportunities for educated women in small and medium-sized towns are extremely limited. In the absence of suitable opportunities, opting out of the workforce seems like a natural choice for many.
Gender Discrimination at work
So far, I’ve not attended any job interviews where my employers didn’t inquire about my children, their age, and the childcare arrangements at home. Indian workplaces are ruled by patriarchal culture and norms. Pregnant women or those with young kids often face bias and unfair treatment at work, pushing many women to stay away from the workforce.
Companies do not usually prefer to hire or promote women to senior leadership positions citing their inability to stay late at work, or travel. Most of the men in leadership roles in private companies have mandatory round the clock work schedules, making them heavily dependent on their female partners on personal and childcare duties. Unfortunately, Indian society is still not mature enough to imagine that the reverse could also be true.
Socially successful women are often stereotyped as bad or irresponsible as parents. On the other hand, employers consider personal commitment interferes with women’s ability to be good at work! As a result, women face severe discrimination both at work and home to the extent where having a career is more than a dream for many.
In many companies, low paying and less rewarding jobs are reserved for women. These positions have very few opportunities to transition into senior positions. It’s usually hard for many to stick to these types of jobs or try to make a career out of these roles, especially when there is no absolute financial need.
Why women’s economic empowerment is important?
India is home to about 25 per cent of all women affected by gender inequality worldwide. It ranks 112 out of 153 countries in the world in the gender gap. The gap is one of the worst in the world in economic participation and the health and safety of women. Lack of women’s economic independence is related to the high prevalence of domestic violence, economic abuse, forced marriage, and murder of girls and women. Not having any work or money doesn’t only make a woman more vulnerable to abuse, discrimination and violence, but also makes it impossible for her to escape abusive relations. Economic empowerment improves women’s decision-making power, access to assets and reduces the rates of domestic violence.
According to a noteworthy Mckinsey report, India could add $700 billion of additional GDP in 2025, if women in India equally participates in the workforce. It will also help bring 68 million more women into the economy over this period by achieving gender parity in economic participation.
How can we improve the current situation?
It needs sustained efforts of government and non-profit organizations to improve women’s participation in the labour force. Government, civil societies and nonprofits must educate people to promote awareness about –
- importance of women’s participation in the workforce.
- the fact that women’s participation in the workforce doesn’t negatively affect the children and families
- the importance of sharing childcare and domestic work responsibilities between men and women
- shifting culture and mindset about women’s social roles
Different stakeholders should work together to create women-friendly jobs, robust policies, and safe work environments. All workplaces should have strict no discrimination policies for women. The government must support and encourage women to set up small businesses where they can hire or engage other women.
Creating more opportunities, and addressing the underlying cultural factors should be the primary focus. Despite all the efforts, It might take several years to completely change the attitude of people towards women’s careers and economic independence.
In a country, where men usually take their privilege for granted, and women are too scared and shy to voice their concerns, we need more and more people just to be able to speak out about gender disparity and advocate for women’s economic empowerment.