Declining Female Employment Rate in India and Why

According to a World Bank Report in 2018, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) among females in India was 26.97% against the world average of 48.47%. As per ILO’s international database (ILOSTAT), India ranks 121 out of 131 countries as far as the participation of women in the workforce is concerned. The female employment rate in India has been falling since 2005, when it was at its peak with 36.78%.

It seems counter-intuitive considering the fact that there has been an average GDP growth rate of 6-7% per annum, a fertility rate decline from 3.9% in 1990 to 2.6% in 2011 and an increase in the years of schooling among girls. In any other country, these would have been indicators of increase in the number of women in the workforce. Then why is female employment rate in India decreasing?

Catalyst, a global non-profit firm working on inclusion of women in the workforce, says that Indian women face a complex set of socio-cultural challenges. These include social expectations and stereotypes about gender roles and the intricate clashes between modernisation and traditions. There is also a lack of reliable infrastructure for women in the workplace, like on-site child care facilities or referral and support services for child and elder care. These have a highly negative impact on female employment in India.

The bias is also evident in the kind of questions a woman is asked during a job interview. While a man is usually evaluated on his professional qualifications, a woman is questioned around the likelihood of marriage and family planning. There is also a wide difference in the pay offered to men and women. These prejudices have adversely affected the male-female employment ratio in India.

This gender inequality is actually endorsed by a majority of Indians. According to the 2012 World Values Survey Data, 63% of men and 48% of women believe that in case of scarcity of job, men should have more right to a job than women. This is primarily because ‘gender roles’ are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the people. Men are believed to be the bread earners while women are considered to be homemakers. Also, in cases of limited income, boys are encouraged to go for higher education and not the girls. All of these factors add to the skewed male-female employment ratio in India.

According to the data from National Family Health Survey, the existence of children aged 0-5 years is a strong predictor of women dropping out of paid work. The primary reason given by women is that they have no support to carry out their domestic duties. To encourage the continuity of women in the workplace, the government of India passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, where maternity leave was extended from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for the first two children. However, most SMEs expressed displeasure with this legislation as it became an additional cost to them. As a result, a lot of organisations avoid hiring women, which will further impact the status of female employment rate in India.

Although, a lot of women avoid joining workforce because of lack of childcare, a new research indicates that women who live in joint families, are less likely to participate in the labor market. A survey conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland in February 2018, suggests that residing in a joint family decreases rural women’s participation in non-farm employment by more than 10%. This is mainly due to the restriction on decision making authority and mobility within and outside the household. This is one of the biggest reasons for low rate of female labor in India.

According to ILO, female employment rate in India is among the lowest in the world and in most cases, it is due to objection from family members. There are several reasons for these objections like concern for women’s safety, difficulty of arranging childcare and cultural norms relating to women’s role in society. Due to a patriarchal mindset, women are considered to be ‘reserve labor force’ to be employed only in case of severe distress.

Social Attitudes Research India Survey, 2016, shows that a significant share of men and women feel that married women whose husbands earn well, should not participate in the workforce. The average working hours in India make it even more stressful for a woman to strike a balance between work and family. The average Indian women in the workforce works for 44- 45 hours per week as against the developing country average of 35-36 hours, as per ILO estimates. But in both developed and developing countries, women perform most of the unpaid household work.

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In spite of working long hours, there is a huge disparity in the pay scale. As per ILO estimates, in the period of April- June 2018, in rural areas, a male employee earns nearly 1.4 to 1.7 times a female employee, while in urban areas, salaried men earn 1.2 to 1.3 times a salaried woman. Sector-based biases also exist. For instance, manufacturing firms traditionally employ men in large numbers. Likewise, most women are not encouraged by their families to take up jobs in ‘male-dominated’ industries either. These disparities further discourage participation of women in the workforce.

Displacement from the agricultural sector and lack of opportunities in manufacturing and other non-farm sectors have also led to a decline in female employment rate in India. Agricultural sector provides flexibility to women to manage work and household responsibilities competently. In Indian households, where men are reluctant to share the responsibilities, the lack of flexibility is a big deterrent for women employment in India. Flexi-working is also offered by a lot of companies on paper but the implementation is not satisfactory. To encourage female employment in India, flexibility must be at the core.

The under-representation of women in the workforce is both a social and economic loss. A McKinsey Global study in 2015 suggests that, India could increase its GDP by 16-60% by 2025 merely by enabling women to participate in the economy at par with men.

Considering the age- old patriarchal mindset and lack of family support, it is certainly not an easy challenge to resolve. However, as the McKinsey Study indicates, female employment in India is an important driver for the growth and development of the economy and if India wants to succeed, it cannot leave its women behind!


  • ‘A family affair: Family members’ role in female employment decisions in India’- Joshua Dean and Seema Jayachandran, 13 May, 2019
  • Women’s Day 2019: Labour force participation of females is still an Achilles Heel for India- M. Saraswathy, 08 March, 2019
  • Women’s Day 2019: Female labour force participation fall from 36.7% in 2005 to 26% in 2018- PTI, 08 March, 2019
  • Why are there fewer women in the workforce today? – DH Web desk, 08 March, 2019
  • India’s Workforce is Masculinizing Rapidly- Rukmini. S, 10 June, 2019
  • Great Indian Family doesn’t help working women- Rukmini. S, 19 February, 2019
  • What prevents women from working in India? – Dipti Jain, 08 March, 2018

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