Last week the annual Periodic Labour Force Survey was published. Contrary to public perception and belief, it suggests that employment has gone up. It also turns out that it is females who are driving this increase. The participation rate is around 41.5 per cent in rural areas, against around 25 per cent five years ago. It’s a similar story in the urban areas, though the increases aren’t as striking — from 20.4 per cent in 2017-18 (July to June) to 25.4 per cent in 2022-23. The simple point is that more women are now working which means they are also earning. Is this good news or not-so-good news?

The answer is: it depends. Changes in female participation in the workforce can be interpreted from at least three perspectives: political, sociological and economic. While discussing the subject, commentators often segue between the three. This leads to a lot of heat but not much light. The political implications are obvious enough. It allows governments and opposition parties to devise manifestos that specifically target females in areas like education, health, nutrition, energy and transport. That’s a very good thing even if it increases pressures on the budgets. Better educated and healthier women are a huge asset to society, not least because they then bring up better educated and healthier children. Sociologically, the combination of better educated and healthier females wanting to work and earn and be independent can create transitional problems as social conservatism is forced to modernise by accepting that males and females are equal and that women can indeed ‘go out’ to work. The objection isn’t to ‘work’ because domestic work for women is 24x7 and all encompassing. The objection is to ‘going out’. The pace of this acceptance has been different in different parts of India but it has all been in the positive direction.

The economic aspect runs through the political and the sociological ones. Objectively speaking, from a purely economic standpoint, it makes no difference to the capital that’s being worked on, or with, if the unit of labour that’s working on it is male or female because it is indifferent to gender. Unfortunately, employers aren’t, whether male or female. But fairness requires that male and female employees and workers should be paid exactly the same. However, because employers assume that the value of the marginal product of a female is less than of a male, they are often paid about a third to half less than males. They are also laid off before the males. This is a global phenomenon. In India it is the norm in the informal sector.

This willingness to work for less pay essentially means women are unable to gauge their market value and settle for less even when patriarchal biases are not at work, especially when more of them are coming into the job market and exerting downward pressure on wages.