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Insights into Editorial: Prison of patriarchy: Why India’s female workforce participation is so low

Insights into Editorial: Prison of patriarchy: Why India’s female workforce participation is so low



India’s female workforce participation is among the lowest in the world.

The Economic Survey 2017-18 revealed that women comprise only 24% of the Indian workforce.

In fact, as India grows economically, the number of women in workplaces is declining steadily. This, even though the enrolment of girls in higher education courses is growing steadily to 46% in 2014 from 39% in 2007.

More than half of the women who would like a job, particularly those in rural areas, say they do not have the skills required for the work they want to do — for example, leatherwork or textile manufacturing. Further, the opportunities that exist need to be more unbiased.


Percentage of Women in India’s workforce:

Female labour force participation is a driver of growth and therefore, participation rates indicate the potential for a country to grow more rapidly.

However, the relationship between women engagement in the labour market and broader development outcomes is complex.

  • The share of women in India’s workforce has fallen dramatically from about 35% to 25%, since 2004.
  • It is much sharper, when one looks at the age group of 15 to 24. As per ILO, India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) fell from 35.8% in 1994 to merely 20.2% in 2012. It has fallen for other age groups as well.


  • It declined over time from 36% women being employed in 2005-06 to 24% of women being employed in 2015-16.
  • This decline is a cause for concern, but literature of developed countries says that this will improve naturally with time and development.


Reasons for Declining Participation of Women in Employment:

  • It appears that there are some non-economic, social and cultural factors. When increase in family incomes are there, due to the cultural factors, women leave the work to take care of the family.
  • One big factor is maternity. Many women who join the workforce are unable to re-join after having a child.


  • The landmark legislation of 2017, which entitles a woman to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave is becoming a big hurdle.


  • As per a study by TeamLease Services, this increased cost for companies and this may discourage them from hiring women.
  • 11 lakh to 18 lakh women are likely to face difficulty in finding new jobs across 10 sectors this year. Because of ICT, part-time jobs from home are not giving the real picture.


  • Concerns about safety and Harassment at work site, both explicit and implicit.


  • Higher Education levels of women also allow them to pursue leisure and other non-work activities, all of which reduce female labour force participation.
  • Structural transformation of Indian agriculture due to farm mechanization results in a lower demand for female agricultural labourers.


  • When income increases, men allows Indian women to withdraw from the labour force, thereby avoiding the stigma of working (cultural factors).
  • Insufficient availability of the type of jobs that women say they would like to do, such as regular part-time jobs that provide steady income and allow women to reconcile household duties with work.


  • Social norms about household work are against women’s mobility and participation in paid work. Childbirth and taking care of elderly parents or in-laws account for the subsequent points where women drop off the employment pipeline.


  • The cultural baggage about women working outside the home is so strong that in most traditional Indian families, quitting work is a necessary precondition to the wedding itself.


According to the reports, About 74 per cent in rural areas and about 70 per cent in urban areas preferred ‘part time’ work on a regular basis while 21 per cent in rural areas and 25 per cent in urban areas wanted regular ‘full-time’ work.



Marriage is a career stopper for the majority of Indian women and this cultural abhorrence towards women working is a not-so-subtle way of ensuring that the escape routes out of a marriage are minimised, if not entirely closed.

The female LFPR in Sweden is 88% and one estimate is in India, the GDP would go up by 20%, if women matched men in workforce participation.

Social norms are alterable, and broader economic trends and government policies are what really matter.


Way Forward:

Firstly, there is a need to generate education-based jobs in rural areas.

  • The state governments should make policies for the participation of rural women in permanent salaried jobs.
  • The governments should also generate awareness to espouse a positive attitude towards women among the public since it is one of the most important impediments in women’s participation in economic activities.


  • Local bodies, with aid from state governments, should open more creches in towns and cities so that women with children can step out and work. The creches will open employment opportunities for women.



  • Supply side reforms to improve infrastructure and address other constraints to job creation could enable more women to enter the labour force.
  • Higher social spending, including in education, can lead to higher female labour force participation by boosting female stocks of human capital.

Initiatives such as Skill India, Make in India, and new gender-based quotas from corporate boards to the police force can spur a positive change. But we need to invest in skill training and job support.

Drawing more women into the labour force, supplemented by structural reforms that could help create more jobs would be a source of future growth for India. Only then would India be able to reap the benefits of “demographic dividend” from its large and youthful labour force.