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Blog #11: Since 2005, fewer jobs for women in India

India is home to the largest number of poor people in the world, as well as the largest number of people who have recently escaped poverty. Over the next few weeks, this blog series will highlight recent research from the World Bank and its partners on what has driven poverty reduction, what still stands in the way of progress, and the road to a more prosperous India.

We hope this will spark a conversation around #WhatWillItTake to #EndPoverty in India. Read all the blogs in this series, we look forward to your comments. 

Female labor force participation in India is among the lowest in the world. What’s worse, the share of working women in India is declining.  This is a cause for concern since higher labor earnings are the primary driver of poverty reduction. It is often argued that declining female participation is due to rising incomes that allow more women to stay at home. The evidence, however, shows that after farming jobs collapsed post 2005, alternative jobs considered suitable for women failed to replace them.

Rising labor earnings have been the main force behind India’s remarkable decline in poverty. The gains arise partly from the demographic transition, which increases the share of working members in the average family. But trends in female labor force participation veer in the opposite direction. Today, India has one of the lowest female participation rates in the world, ranking 120th among the 131 countries for which data are available. Even among countries with similar income levels, India is at the bottom, together with Yemen, Pakistan and Egypt (figure 1). Worse still, the rate has been declining since 2005.  This is a matter of concern as women’s paid employment is known to increase their ability to influence decision-making within the household, and empower them more broadly in society as a whole. 

 India’s female labor force participation is among the lowest in the world
Figure 1: India’s female labor force participation is among the lowest in the world
Source: World Development Indicators, World Bank (2012).

This declining trend has been particularly pronounced in rural areas, where female labor force participation among women aged 15 years and above fell from 49 percent in 2005 to 36 percent in 2012. This is the most recent period for which data are available. The numbers are based on the National Sample Survey’s (NSS) definition of ‘usual status’ of work, but the trend remains similar with other definitions too.

In a recent paper, we argue that the explanation for this disturbing trend is the lack of suitable job opportunities for women. In a traditional society like India, where women bear the bulk of the responsibility for domestic chores and child care, their work outside the home is acceptable if it takes place in an environment that is perceived as safe, and allows the flexibility of multi-tasking. Indeed, three-quarters of women who were willing to work, if work was made available, favored part-time salaried jobs. From this perspective, female labor force participation can be expected to depend on the availability of ‘suitable jobs’ such as farming, which are both flexible and close to home. However, the number of farming jobs has been shrinking, without a commensurate increase in other employment opportunities. Our research suggests that more than half of the decline in female labor force participation is due to the scarcity of suitable jobs at the local level.

A large body of academic work in India has focused on a different explanation, the so-called ‘income effect’. It is argued that higher household incomes have gradually allowed more rural women to stay at home, and that this is a preferred household choice in a predominantly patriarchal society. Other frequently-mentioned explanations are that the share of working women is declining because girls are staying longer in school. It is also said that with shrinking family sizes, and without the back-up of institutional child support, women have no option but to stay out of the work force.

We are skeptical. Staying longer in school and being less able to rely on family support for child-rearing could justify a decline in participation rates among younger women, but not the equally important drop among middle-aged cohorts.  There are also reasons to downplay the income effect.  Between 2005 and 2012 India experienced roughly a doubling of wages in real terms.  But across districts, a doubling of real wages is associated with a 3 percentage point decline in female participation rates, not with the much larger 13 percentage point fall that actually occurred.  Our research shows that these factors explain less than a quarter of the recent decline in India’s female labor force participation.

Evidence also points to a less ‘voluntary’ withdrawal of women from the labor force than the income effect explanation implies. The NSS, which is the main source of labor market data, tends to underestimate women’s work. What most working women do in India does not match the image of a regular, salaried, nine-to-five job. Many women have marginal jobs or are engaged in multiple activities, including home production, which is often hard to measure well. Female unemployment may be underestimated as well. If one were to relax the stringent criteria used by the NSS to define labor force participation, and include the women who participated under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MNREGA), or were registered with a placement agency, then the female labor force participation rate would be between 3 and 5 percentage points higher. This measurement problem is further evidenced by the population census data that report much higher rates of female unemployment than the NSS.

 There are not enough suitable jobs for women along the rural-urban gradation
Figure 2: There are not enough suitable jobs for women along the rural-urban gradation
Source: Based on the National Sample Survey (NSS), 2012 and Population Census, 2001.

Beyond the income effect and measurement issues, the main driver of the decline in female labor force participation rates is the transformation of job opportunities at the local level. After 2005, farming jobs collapsed, especially in small villages, and alternative job opportunities considered suitable for women failed to replace them. Regular, non-farm employment only expanded in large cities (figure 2). As a result, there is a ‘valley’ of suitable jobs along the rural-urban gradation. Fortunately, the decline in female labor force participation is not irreversible. The trend can be turned around through a more vibrant creation of local salaried jobs – including part-time jobs – in the intermediate range of the rural-urban gradation where an increasingly large share of the Indian population now resides.

Urmila Chatterjee, Rinku Murgai and Martin Rama (2015) Job Opportunities along the Rural-Urban Gradation and Female Labor Force Participation in India.” Policy Research Working Paper 7412, World Bank.

This blog was originally published in the Indian Express on 26th July, 2016.



Martin Rama

Former chief economist, Latin America and Caribbean region

Rinku Murgai

Practice Manager, East Asia and Pacific Region’s Poverty and Equity Team

vani kotcherlakota
July 26, 2016

I have read the article with great interest. However I am not sure if I can agree with the fact/ reasons for the decline. I am of the opinion that female participation has increased in the educated population with more entering the IT industry and other professional degrees. Two incomes have become a norm for most families as the consumption patterns have radically changed. The so called " income effect" is a reason for only very few selected higher income group families and not necessarily the reason for all.

Manoharan. S
July 26, 2016

A good research article. Oriental (Indian) cultural aspects and patriarchal governing structures in the family set up play much more role for declining trend in women labour force in India.

R C Rath
July 29, 2016

one of the best study- it is a matter of concern for the policy planners. If this continues, there will be visible inequality,