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Insights into Editorial: Squandering the gender dividend

Insights into Editorial: Squandering the gender dividend


The 61st round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) recorded 48.5% rural women above the age of 15 as being employed either as their major activity or as their subsidiary activity but this number dropped to 23.7% in the recently released report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS).

If labour force survey data are to be believed, rural India is in the midst of a gender revolution in which nearly half the women who were in the workforce in 2004-5 had dropped out in 2017-18.

Is this part of a massive transformation of rural lifestyles or are our surveys presenting a skewed picture? If this change is real, does it offer a cause for worry?


Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS):

PLFS is a recent initiative aimed at generating estimates of various labour force indicators.

It measures employment every 3 months in urban areas and once a year in both rural and urban areas.

The quarterly survey only captures data classed as current weekly status (CWS), while the annual survey measures both the usual status and CWS.

The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation conducts the survey.


Concerns regarding this NSSO data:

Decline is not located primarily among the privileged sections – A comparison of rural female WPRs between 2004-5 and 2017-18 does not suggest that the decline is located primarily among the privileged sections of the rural population.

The fall is higher in poorer sections of society. The fall is high for illiterate women.

There is huge decline in work on family firms and allied activities (14.8%), followed by casual wage labour (8.9%). Most of the decline i.e., 23% out of 24.8% came from reduced participation in agriculture and allied activities.

If rising incomes lead households to decide that women’s time is better spent caring for home and children, that is their choice.

However, if women are unable to find work in a crowded labour market, reflecting disguised unemployment, that is a national tragedy.

Concentration among lower education strata – More importantly, most of the decline in the WPR has taken place among women with low levels of education.


With compared to women with men: Easier for men to find a job:

Other work opportunities, except for work in public works programmes, are not easily open to women.

  • This challenge is particularly severe for rural women with moderate levels of education.
  • Men’s participation in agriculture has also declined. However, men were able to pick up work in other industries whereas women reduced their participation in other industries as well as agriculture resulting in a lower WPR.
  • Mechanisation and land fragmentation have reduced agricultural work opportunities for both men and women.
  • A man with class 10 education can be a postal carrier, a truck driver or a mechanic; these opportunities are not open to women.
  • Hence, it is not surprising that education is associated with a lower WPR for women; in 2016-17, 29.1% illiterate women were employed, compared to only 16% women with at least secondary education.
  • Although women try to find whatever work they can, they are unable to gain employment at an intensive level that rises above our labour force survey thresholds. This suggests an enormous untapped pool of female workers that should not be ignored.


Undercount is a symptom of the unfulfilled demand for work:

  • On-going experimental research at the National Council of Applied Economic Research’s National Data Innovation Centre (NCAER-NDIC) suggests a tremendous undercount of women’s work with the standard labour force questions.
  • Women’s work and family responsibilities do not fit into neat compartments. Household responsibilities do not prevent women from working.
  • NSSO and PLFS surveys assess the primary activity in which respondents spent a majority of their previous year. They also note down the subsidiary activity in which individuals spent at least 30 days.
  • If individuals are defined as working by either primary or subsidiary criteria, they are counted among the workers.
  • Now, women’s activities may be diverse, a woman may spend on her own field or as a construction labourer or as MGNREGA worker in whole month by some days each and they may not be counted as workers.


Way Forward: Possible solutions:

Establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Employment and Skill Development is a welcome move by the new government.

It is to be hoped that this committee will take the issue of declining female employment as seriously as it does the issue of rising unemployment among the youth.

Not all policies need to be gender focussed. One of the most powerful ways in which public policies affect rural women’s participation in non-agricultural work is via development of transportation infrastructure that allows rural women to seek work as sales clerks, nurses and factory workers in nearby towns.

If the cabinet committee were to focus on multi-sectoral reforms that have a positive impact on women’s work opportunities, the potential gender dividend could be far greater than the much-celebrated demographic dividend.