‘Falling female labour force participation rate a puzzle’

Aditi Nigam | | Updated on: Feb 17, 2013


Growth must generate jobs in sectors women can access: ILO Regional Director

India boasts of rapid economic growth, but women’s participation in the labour market has been declining.

ILO’s new report expresses concern over the fall in labour force participation rate for women in India from just over 37 per cent in 2004-05 to 29 per cent in 2009-10.

As a result, India ranks 11th from the bottom out of 131 countries in this field, behind even Bangladesh and Pakistan. While ILO’s Regional Director-Asia-Pacific Yoshiteru Uramoto feels that a quota system could work in this regard, he feels what is really required is a comprehensive approach.

Excerpts :

What do you see as the reason for the decline in female labour force participation rate?

The falling female labour force participation rate in India has been a puzzle for academics and policy makers. Recent studies have focused on four explanations – increased educational enrolment, income effect (as household incomes rise, women are withdrawing from agricultural activities), lack of job opportunities, and measurement. It is difficult to measure the participation of women in work, because of the nature of the jobs they do (home-based work, agricultural labour, etc).

Our research shows that the falling rate in India is the result of a combination of these factors. For this reason, addressing the challenge requires a comprehensive approach.

Also, there is great uncertainty over whether the labour force will now rise, as women become more educated. Where will the jobs come from?

The primary focus should, therefore, be to create jobs that enable women to join the labour force. This will involve promoting economic growth that generates jobs in sectors that women can access like manufacturing and services, improving work-life balance, maternity protection, flexible working arrangements, better access to credit and skill development.

A third of women are still employed in agriculture, says your report. What can be done to enable them to move out of agriculture?

In India, the share of men and women working in agriculture has fallen. As of 2009-10, 65.3 per cent of female workers were still in this sector, compared with 74.8 per cent in 1999-00. For men, the share has fallen from 53.9 per cent to 46.1 per cent over the same period.

However, not only has the share fallen, but also the absolute numbers of women in agriculture, from 70.740 million in 1999-00 to 62.813 million in 2009-10. In fact, the drop in female employment in agriculture accounts for 81 per cent of the fall in the sector over this decade.

Women in India have moved into industry, but mostly in construction activities and services. But still, the movement of women into better formal jobs in the organised sector in India and other countries remains weak.

For women to move out of agriculture, the right economic and social conditions are needed, such as quality education and relevant skills development, access to inputs and credit.

Isn’t it a poor reflection of policies that women are over-represented in occupations such as clerks, service workers, and shop and sales staff?

Women in India (and globally) are over-represented in certain occupations. The three most important occupations for Indian women (at the one-digit level in 2009-10) were elementary occupations (26 per cent), followed by craft and related trade workers (19 per cent) and service and sales workers and technicians (11 per cent). Only a small proportion of women workers were in administrative, executive and managerial occupations (seven per cent).

There is a clear segregation of women in sectors that are characterised by low pay, long hours and, often, informal working arrangements. Even within the sectors where women dominate, they rarely hold upper managerial jobs.

Beyond just the policy environment, the segregation of women is the reflection of a complex interaction between economic and social factors such as gender discrimination and biases, which lead young women to focus on a narrow range of occupations.

Do you think a quota system could ensure greater work participation of women?

A quota system or affirmative action can work and help increase women’s participation in wage employment. However, promoting opportunities for wider participation of women in the labour force requires a comprehensive approach.

Ultimately, the goal is not merely to increase female labour force participation, but to provide opportunities for decent work that will, in turn, contribute to the economic empowerment of women.


Published on February 17, 2013
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