Published on Jobs and Development

How to get more women working in India

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Bringing women’s labour force participation up to that of men is essential for growth and development. Yet, unequal participation by males and females - and disparity in their wages -plagues both the formal and informal sectors in India.
The first step in empowering women and increasing their opportunities is better education and skill-enhancement at all levels. This includes dissuading drop-outs. Next, we must strengthen anti-discrimination laws and promote policies that protect women against workplace discrimination – both in law and in practice. Then, we must improve work-place infrastructure in order to remove entry barriers and attrition. This includes the provision of toilets, a safe work environment and adherence to laws pertaining to provision of maternity support and crèche facilities. Finally, we must break gender stereotypes which perpetuate discrimination through changing of attitudes and perceptions regarding female workers. These measures will help to increase female labor force participation.
Why is this so important for India? The female-male labour force participation ratio for India is on the lower end of the spectrum of the global female-male labour force participation ratios. The extent of these inequalities further varies across different industries and geographical regions.
The share of female workforce in the Indian manufacturing industries is about 10% of the total female workforce. The female workforce participation in the organized manufacturing sector presents a dismal picture. Using the Annual Survey of Industries – plant level data for the period 2000-2001 to 2011-2012, the number of directly hired female workers in the organized manufacturing industries has been growing at approximately 3.9 % per annum. However, delving deeper, we find that the share of females among the regular workers has remained almost stagnant during this decade at around 19%.
Image: © John Isaac / World Bank

70% of the women in the organized manufacturing industries in 2011-2012 were in food and beverages manufacturing, textiles and apparels, and tobacco. The textile manufacturing industries also witnessed the highest growth in the female workforce participation. This is not surprising given social norms and skill endowment. Indeed in many countries female workers often participate and are absorbed in certain stereotypical professions leading to occupational segregation. These occupations in most cases are manually dexterous and low skill intensive.
The tobacco and food and beverages manufacturing industries paid the lowest wages to their female workers. The wage gap between male and female workers in these industries was also the greatest. In contrast, industries which hired fewer female workers, witnessed a narrowing of the wage gap. This includes the chemicals, fabricated metal products, and electrical machinery manufacturing industries. Why don’t female workers move from the low paying industries to high paying ones? Is it a lack of requisite skills and education? Or does discrimination prevent these moves? And why do wages of women not increase through collective bargaining in industries that employ relatively more female workers but pay them lower wages?
Typically, the demand side determinants of occupational segregation are primarily driven by educational or skill differences among female and male workers, as well as the employer’s gender discrimination. On the supply side, conventional wisdom suggests that female workers opt for occupations which permit them to take breaks for maternity and child care. The choice of occupation is further influenced by cultural norms and societal expectations which dissuade females from choosing unorthodox career paths.
However, what remains puzzling is why these occupational pattern do not change significantly even after more than 10% points improvement in the level of literacy among females over this decade and presence of laws such as the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, the Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948 and the Factories Act, 1948- Section 48? 
To address this imbalance, we need to undertake the following: better education and skill-enhancement opportunity; strengthen anti-discrimination laws; improve work-place infrastructure; and most importantly, change perceptions regarding female workers.


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