Workers at watch factory in Hosur. (Hemant Mishra/Mint via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • From boosting economic growth to bringing about progressive changes in the society, the participation of women in the workforce is evidently tied up with multiple aspects of nation building.

    It’s time governments stepped up to build bridges, because India cannot march to victory when half of its force is left behind.

The state of women in India leaves so much to be desired, that no matter how far ahead we tread into the realm of woman empowerment, it never seems far enough.

In the words of NITI Aayog Chief Executive Officer Amitabh Kant, “India can grow at over 10-11 per cent if we include women in the economic process”.

According to the IndiaSpend report of April 2016, merely 27 per cent of Indian women are currently in the active workforce, and only 34 per cent of women who are degree holders are employed or looking for employment opportunities. According to a World Bank report in March 2017, India currently ranks a disappointing 120 out of 131 nations in terms of the percentage of female labour force participation (FLFP) — only marginally better than Pakistan and the Arab world.

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It therefore does not take much to infer that to realise its aspiration of double-digit economic growth, India must proactively work towards empowering and integrating this half of the country’s 1.2 billion population into the national workforce.

The mathematics, however, is incidental. Financial independence is the most obvious driving force when it comes to a woman’s ability to exercise autonomy and take independent decisions within a household. It is the most important factor contributing to empowerment of women cutting across culture, region and economic background.

Despite being one of the world’s fastest growing and vibrant economies, India’s rate of women employment is amongst the lowest in the world — not only among educated women with degrees, but across all levels of education. Even more alarmingly, the World Bank Report also states that it has been on a consistent downslide over the past decade, which may largely be attributed to socio-cultural factors, among others.

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Why Is India Losing Women From The National Workforce?

Lack Of Appropriate Jobs: Conventionally, the sectors and job profiles that are traditionally considered ‘women-friendly’ are fairly limited in economic scale and numbers. This has little to do with the individual capacity of women, but more with archaic classifications of jobs as ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ for women. While there has been notable social change in this regard with a larger number of women venturing into jobs that were traditionally a male domain, a lot more needs to be done to make all sectors inclusive and welcoming of women labour. Furthermore, industries and occupations that absorb a major chunk of employable women — agriculture, handicraft manufacturing, sales, elementary services etc — have not seen significant growth in the past decade or so.

Socio-Cultural Impositions And Stereotypical Gender Norms: In conservative Indian families, women are simply not ‘allowed’ to work, regardless of how educated or skilled they are. In other cases, working women are expected to abandon their jobs and careers after marriage to tend to the family and household in keeping with the traditional gender role of being the ‘nurturer’ while the man exercises his responsibilities as the ‘provider’.

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Challenges In Resuming Careers After Motherhood: A large number of women drop out of the workforce following motherhood because most workplaces are simply not adequately equipped to reintegrate young mothers. While there are regulations in place for provisions like extended maternity leave, women find it incredibly challenging to return to their original careers after taking time off to tend to their young children. While reentering the job market, they usually have to compromise with pay and position.

Lack Of Administrative Support: Mothers who aspire to return to the workforce soon after giving birth have a unique set of challenges to face. Unless they have unflinching support from family, they are largely dependant on creches to take care of children during work hours. While urban educated women are better off in this regard, rural women and women in smaller towns do not yet have access to these support facilities at affordable prices, and in most cases, not at all.

Concerns Of Safety: Rampant crimes against women, and their compromised safety in public as well as private spaces make many women reluctant to venture out unless they absolutely need to. Right from public transport to sexual harassment at workplaces, the path of every woman who is out and about is fraught with perils everywhere. The abysmal state of women’s safety and the poor implementation of laws largely contribute towards families not encouraging their womenfolk to step out of homes.

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What Governments Can Do To Bring Back Indian Women Into The Workforce?

Governments can play a key role in formulating and implementing initiatives to bridge this disparity, and ensure that women get an equal and fair chance in the employment market.

Anti-Discrimination Laws: There is a pressing need for firm laws in place to protect women against discrimination at the workplace, at stages of recruitment, career growth and retirement. Deprivation of opportunity on the basis of gender — when skill, experience and qualifications are comparable — should be contestable in a court of law.

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Laws For Provision Of Maternity Support And Childcare Facilities: The infrastructure and environment at workplaces must be made conducive for pregnant, lactating and breastfeeding women. Government-funded subsidised childcare will encourage more young mothers to return to the workforce. Companies and institutions hiring a certain minimum number of women employees should be mandated to provide on-site childcare facilities, or at least have a liaison with private creches and daycare establishments.

Equal Maternity And Paternity Leave: While most employers provide for several months of maternity leave, the same is often seen as a deterrent for employers to hire women in the first place. This can be combated by balancing it out with equal paternity leave so that both men and women can equally partake in the joy and responsibilities that come with parenthood. This would also help change the perception of women as the primary caretaker of children.

No Such Thing As A Woman’s Job: Equal division of responsibilities on the domestic front will take some load off women’s shoulders and give them more freedom and opportunities to participate in the workforce. In this regard, social campaigns to break gender stereotypes and normalise the role of men as caretakers of homes and families will help bring about social change over time.

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Improving Workplace Flexibility And Evolved Working Models: Support from employers will facilitate more women to join the workforce, especially after marriage and children. Re-employment programmes, flexibility in working hours, work-from-home options and part-time job employment would mitigate at least some limitations faced by women who want to work, but are not able to, owing to domestic and parental responsibilities.

Making Workplaces Women-Friendly: Equipping workplaces with basic facilities such as clean toilets and a safe working environment would go a long way in motivating more women to step into the workforce. Strict compliance guidelines regarding the same need to be put in place.

Skill Development And Support For Women Entrepreneurs: A wider reach of schemes like Skill India and Stand Up India can help women job-seekers become job-creators. There are several women who are keen to work, but are not equipped with the necessary education and skills. Short-term vocational programmes will significantly contribute towards making more women employable. Moreover, with establishment of small-scale enterprises within communities, women will not have to commute long distances to be able to work.

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Tax Incentives For Employers: Employers who are able to establish a minimum gender ratio in terms of employment across various roles and leadership positions in their organisations — assessed through a comprehensive audit system — should be made eligible for certain tax benefits. This should help bridge the gender gap and incentivise companies to hire capable women candidates.

Extending The Age Barrier For Government Jobs: Most working women tend to lose out on significant job years in their youth owing to marriage and childbearing. Provisions to induct them into government jobs and civil services even at later stages of life will open up multiple career opportunities for women who are willing to return to the job market.

Reservations For The Underprivileged: While reservation for women in jobs and education may seem like a well-meaning measure, it comes with its set of loopholes and limitations. When privileged urban women get access to reservations, it takes away opportunities from those who actually need it. To right historic injustice, the marginalised need access to education and skill training. Hence, reservation should only apply to the economically underprivileged, regardless of gender, religion or caste identity.

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From boosting economic growth to bringing about progressive changes in the society, the participation of women in the workforce is evidently tied up with multiple aspects of nation building. It’s time governments stepped up to build bridges, because India cannot march to victory when half of its force is left behind.

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