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Don’t just blame patriarchy for fewer women in India’s job force. Blame our cities too

Data shows that women are quite willing to work, and men are supportive of it despite patriarchal norms.

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Incomes in India will stagnate unless we find ways to get women back into the labour force. And, our cities must especially be blamed for discouraging women to go out and work.

According to the International Labour Organization, female labour force participation in India dropped from 35 per cent in 1990 to 27 per cent in 2013. The gender gap in labour force participation in 2014 was 53 percentage points, and urban female labour force participation in India has all but stagnated in the last two decades.

This has occurred despite rising per capita income and a significant reduction in fertility rates. Indeed, standard economic theory predicts that as countries move from lower income to middle income (as in the case of India), women leave the workforce because there is lesser need to engage in the most arduous forms of labour – such as working in farms or at brick kilns – for a bit of extra money. As incomes rise, it is argued that women are offered white-collar jobs and they re-enter the labour force – as seen in the West.

But India’s numbers are far worse than what standard theories predict. A recent World Bank report found that India is ranked 121st out of 131 countries in female labour force participation rate, and much lower than many of its neighbours. Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation stabilised at around 35 per cent decades ago, and Bangladesh consistently demonstrates well over 50 per cent female labour force participation.

Also read: Lack of jobs in India affects women more than men

Most worryingly, India is losing its most educated and productive women. National Sample Survey (NSS) data shows that women who have passed higher secondary have the lowest female labour force participation in India.

What can policymakers do?

Recent research shows that the decline in female labour force participation in India is largely due to a drop in women entering the labour force in rural India. As rural incomes rise, women prefer not to do backbreaking agricultural work.

But even then, there is significantly greater female labour force participation in rural areas compared to urban areas. The important question is – why are women refusing or unable to enter the labour force in urban areas despite better wages and skilled jobs on offer?

The challenges of integrating women into the labour force will only increase as India continues to urbanise.

Of course, there will be pernicious patriarchal norms preventing women from entering the labour force. However, as our data shows, women themselves are quite willing to work – and men are supportive of it despite patriarchal norms. It is rather the Indian cities that are not hospitable to women entering the labour force.

Also read: Mapping unpaid women’s work is India’s next challenge in its vexed jobs scenario

The problem with Indian cities

Labour force participation may be ‘formal’ or ‘informal’; it may include entrepreneurship activities, from running stores and food stalls to trading.

It has been widely recognised that the role of women in Indian households – and their contribution to household economic productivity and expenditure saving – is rarely measured properly. But the opportunity to engage in an economic activity outside one’s home increases the marginal value of employment, and is more likely to shatter discriminatory gender norms that coerce women to stay at home.

From an economic perspective, a woman’s decision to participate in the workforce is broadly viewed as a consequence of evaluating two trade-offs. First, as aggregate household income increases, the marginal benefit of entering the labour force is believed to decline – if there is sufficient money in the household, there are weaker incentives to get a job. Second, the incentive to join the labour force decreases as the opportunity costs (psychological or financial) of leaving one’s home increase.

In rural India, agricultural work is typically near the household and therefore an easier choice for women. Even in non-farm work, rural India has demonstrated the capacity to employ women. For instance, more women availed of the job opportunities provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

In urban India, such a natural source of women’s employment rarely exists near one’s home. Industries like construction are less preferred by women and also tend to discriminate against women while hiring. Women in urban India are forced to look far from home for suitable employment. Unfortunately, the lack of safe transport creates obstacles for them. As a result, urban women, who are among the most skilled in India, are unlikely to enter the labour market.

Also read: Modi govt didn’t address jobs crisis in the first term. India’s progress depends on it now

A data-driven perspective 

I am conducting a study on female labour force participation with Apurva Bamezai, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav. The research is being carried out in four cities – Dhanbad, Indore, Patna and Varanasi – and the surrounding peri-urban and rural areas. In each city (and surrounding areas), 3,500 households will be surveyed. In each household, a working-age female and the (usually male) primary wage earner will be interviewed. This will allow us to understand not only women’s own perceptions about the labour market but also the possible constraints they face from men in the household.

Preliminary data from completed surveys in Dhanbad, Patna and Varanasi reveal important trends. In each of these three cities, only 20-30 per cent of working-age women are (or have ever been) part of the labour force. This is consistent with the overall national employment numbers.

There is little evidence that women are willingly opting out of the labour force, as suggested by the theory of income effects. Among working-age women who have never been employed, 60-70 per cent are willing to work if offered a suitable job. A similar percentage of male respondents believe that women should be allowed to work if offered suitable jobs.

In each of these three cities, less than 30 per cent of the women feel ‘very safe’ while travelling alone at night, compared to over 40 per cent men. Our preliminary analyses also indicate that perceptions of easy, safe travel are major determinants of whether a woman is willing to enter the labour force. The city can be inhospitable to women who are willing to enter the labour force, even if there is support at home.

Also read: Maternity benefits may cost 1.8 million Indian women their jobs

The way forward

Strong patriarchal norms exist in India, but low female labour force participation is not just a result of social conservatism.

Women are not joining the workforce in urban India because urban infrastructure is failing them.

Recent work by Girija Borker has shown how the Delhi Metro has provided many college-going women the opportunity to attend better colleges far from home.

But the challenges of each Indian city are unique and context-specific. A number of complicated social factors impact female labour force participation, and it would be foolhardy to generalise too much from the data we have collected. Ultimately, more systematic large-scale data collection on women’s labour choices is required because that is the only way to identify actionable policies to address India’s low female labour force participation.

The author is a Senior Visiting Fellow at CPR and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. 

This is the eighteenth in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series is available on CPR’s website.

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  1. Not sure if this is of any value to your study ; my own experience in high tech industry has consistently shown up robust participation at juniour levels. However, as the woman gets married, she’ll follow her husband as he changes jobs. Even if that means periods of unemployment. A significant proportion (those that live in nuclear families) will altogether abjure employment when faced with childcare responsibilities. That’s the most tragic aspect of it – employees with 6-10 years of experience are typically the most productive in our industry. They have sufficient skills acquired on the job, high energy levels and are not jaded. Such employees quitting hits companies hard. Besides infrastructure, it is perhaps time for companies to think in terms of high quality child-care options.

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