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    Why are Indian women dropping out of the workforce?

    Why are Indian women dropping out of the workforce?

    Why are Indian women dropping out of the workforce?
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    By Aishwarya Sawarna Nir   IST (Updated)


    The sharp decline in female employment rate or participation of women in the workforce in India currently equals that of war-torn Yemen. Despite a marginal recovery post the COVID-19 pandemic, women continue to be the biggest victims as far as employment is concerned.

    Recently India made history when its total fertility rate (TFR) dropped below 2.20 to 2, this from the 4.97 recorded between 1975 and 1980.
    Historically, a drop in fertility rate results in high gross national income per capita and positive economic development . This key macro indicator can further affirm the recent analysis drawn by Morgan Stanley that positions India for a high growth period over the next decade and crowns it as the fastest growing Asian economy.
    Yet, despite the golden period which awaits India and the amazing victory that has been clocked in by Indian women with the TFR, a worrying new trend has emerged which has left many baffled.
    That’s the sharp plummet in the female employment rate or participation of women in the workforce, which currently equals that of war torn Yemen. Despite a marginal recovery post pandemic, women continue to be the biggest victims of the pandemic.
    With one of the lowest participation rates in India’s growth story and around the world.
    “If we look at time-use data (for Indian married women) they spent considerably higher amount of time in domestic and care work than men do, this is particularly salient in states such as Bihar…there’s a lot more to be done in thinking about how we address these inequalities particularly in labour market engagement but also in domestic and care work which could be sort of a barrier to women’s labour force participation,” said Diva Dhar, a Doctoral Candidate- Public Policy at Oxford Blavatnik School.
    Domestic and care work are not just imposed, but are internalised bias when it comes to Indian women. Diva established this with an experiment which she carried out on an Indian Matrimony site wherein she created fake profiles of women who were career oriented and women open to giving up career after marriage.
    As per this experiment, women who were more career oriented received close to 20-28percent less marriage proposals vs women who were open to leaving work after marriage.
    “Personally it is quite interesting because many of my friends who are very very educated women have also dropped out of the workforce, many of them are not working, again this is not statistically representative of the larger population but it is interesting that many of them are choosing to drop out of the labour force , to prioritise family and other outcomes vis a vis working, despite having invested a lot of money and time in their education.” Diva added.
    The pandemic took its hardest toll on women where a lot of burden for unpaid care work fell on women and primarily the reason prescribed to the sharp decline observed in female employment rate during 2020-21, it is said female participation in the workforce plummeted to 9 percent during this period. Yet even post pandemic this number has made a marginal recovery, why are women not coming back into the workforce?
    “I think we are seeing a scenario where there is an availability of work from home option, another scenario is the decline in female participation in the workforce. Though these two events have happened simultaneously, there are lots of things that have happened in between. During the pandemic women obviously lost more jobs than men, and those women are still struggling to make a comeback, the industries that were most evidently hit during the pandemic were the ones which had female majority in the workforce. These were more female driven industries, thirdly if you look at the female entrepreneurial ecosystem especially women entrepreneurs especially women led businesses which are still struggling to establish themselves. Only close to 17-20% businesses in India are women owned businesses.
    “These were most badly hit during the pandemic because of which a lot of businesses shut down, a lot of them had to downsize and women there too lost their jobs. Again when you specifically talk about working from home, it requires access to technology, access to the internet, whereas if you look at gender divide digitally women are much more at a disadvantage as compared to men. I would also like to talk about the vulnerability women face while working from home - instances of domestic violence have doubled since the pandemic, so women are not in a safe environment within their own homes. A lot of employee led surveys have been taken to evaluate the effectiveness of work from home and people have reported more burn out, even in this instance women are more prone to burn out vs men, as we are not just expected to attend to our professional commitments but also attend to domestic work. So it’s a combination of different factors which is discouraging women from participating in the workforce despite acceptance of work from home options.” Priyal Keni, Generation Equality Ally, UN India pointed out.
    Is the scenario of women not returning to the workforce unique to India or is there a wider international pattern?
    "It is only in high income countries that we can see a recovery in the employment levels to pre pandemic rates, across middle income or low income countries we see that women are not returning to the workforce,” said Diva.
    However, as per research there has been one country that has stood firm as an anomaly to this trend -- Bangladesh, which has made quite a few right moves here with a stunning GDP growth curve and a very healthy female employment rate at 37percent. Makes you wonder where are we going wrong and what are they doing right?
    "I think there is a lot of interesting work being done in Bangladesh - on micro credit, women’s books and movements- there’s an active civil society that has contributed to positive outcomes for women, like working towards increasing female education. There’s also a dominance of the garment sector which is a driver for women’s employment in contrast to what we have in India, but I cannot say with certainty the factors which might have caused this difference,” Diva stressed.
    Can the recently released World Value Survey hold any answer? The wave 7 survey recorded between 2017-2022 ranks Bangladesh as a highly traditional yet survival oriented society which values traditional roles that honour conventional family, yet places a lot of importance on economic security. Too early to say this, but perhaps the positive numbers of female employment might stem from the need for financial security more than a reflection of progressive gender roles within the society.
    Whereas, a recent research by Pew Research Centre estimated that almost 40percent Indians wanted to stick to traditional gender roles in their marriage- with more opting for men to take on professional commitments and women to take on domestic work in order to run and support their family. This number is way above the Global median of 23% when it comes to preference of traditional gender roles, and much closer to countries like Tunisia and Indonesia.
    My research on the plummeting female participation in the workforce raised a lot more questions than answers- Does the answer to getting women back into the work fold lies more in our preference for gender roles at home?
    The internalised and culturally accepted bias of looking at domestic and care work as a woman’s responsibility alone and professional work as a man’s responsibility, might be a key trigger for this trend.
    When it comes to formal institutions one can solve the disparity with fixed quotas, more representation, policies and creating a supportive ecosystem. How do we fix the cultural bias which we continue to foster at home? Women will only turn up to work if the men, children and close friends and relatives support them and encourage them at home to show up for themselves and the opportunities that are now available. Here’s hoping as India prepares for the next decade of promising growth period, women come forward and become equal participants in scripting this victory.
    The author, Aishwarya Nir (Twitterr: @aishwarya_nir) is a female entrepreneur, who has founded and is actively involved in managing Global Beauty Secrets- a luxury beauty brand. She’s also a Director at Aishwarya Healthcare - a pharmaceutical company.
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