Updated: April 3, 2021 10:21:02 am
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A few days ago, a comment by the BJP’s newly-appointed Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat about women wearing ripped jeans created massive outrage in social media. But, from the perspectives of the economy and public policy, perhaps the more salient comment was made by Rawat’s cabinet colleague Ganesh Joshi, who reportedly said: “Women talk about all the things they want to do in life, but the most important thing for them is to look after their family and kids.”
Joshi was not voicing a rare sentiment. In 2013, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Mohan Bhagwat had said: “A husband and wife are involved in a contract under which the husband has said that you should take care of my house and I will take care of all your needs…Till the time the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her; if the wife violates the contract, he can disown her.”
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To be sure, this understanding of a woman’s role in Indian society is not limited to any one group or political party. Such conservative/orthodox beliefs, as well as violence against women, are often held as the main reasons why very few women seek any employment. That is why India has one of the worst labour force participation rates (LFPR) by women.
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The LFPR basically tells what percentage of the total women within the working-age are seeking work; it includes both those who are employed as well as those who are as yet unemployed but seeking work.
As the chart below shows, at 21% India has one of the lowest female participation rates in the world. In other words, 79% of Indian women (aged 15 years and above) do not even seek work.
Countries with which Indian typically compares itself — such as China, the US, Indonesia, and Bangladesh — have two-to-three times higher participation rates for women.
Worse still, it is not the case that India is behind just a handful of countries.
As the chart below shows, no matter which cluster of countries one compares with — high income or low, highly indebted or least developed — India comes off worse. India’s 21% female LFPR is not even half the global average (47%). The bottom of this chart further underscores the poor company India keeps in terms of freedom for women.
However, the truth about women’s participation in India’s economy is more complicated.
In a recent paper, titled “Paid work, unpaid work and domestic chores: Why are so many Indian women out of the labour force?”, Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University, makes a couple of nuanced but significant points.
One, she argues that the LFPR does not accurately capture the participation of Indian women in the economy. She says that the majority of women in South Asia are between the two extremes — namely, those women who work outside their homes for a salary and those who are exclusively involved within their own homes (caring for their family) of their own volition.
“These are women whose involvement in economic work (activities that are within the standard boundaries of the System of National Accounts, that is counted as economic activities when national income or GDP is measured) lies in a grey zone,” she states.
“These are women who might work in the house or outside, and whose work might be paid or unpaid, and whose work might be continuous throughout the year or seasonal, and it might be full-time or part-time…For example, she could be involved in livestock rearing or farming or helping the kirana shop, or involved in artisanal activity, such as making baskets, weaving or pottery. If these are family activities, then her contribution to economic work (over and above her ‘care’ work) would not be paid. In such a case, it is highly likely that she would not be seen as a worker, neither by her family nor by herself,” explains Deshpande, as she lists out several jobs where women’s contribution to economic work is missed by the formal surveys that calculate LFPR.
The other point Deshpande makes is that “the whole focus on labour force participation reduces the issue of women’s involvement to a labour supply issue”.
In other words, while there are factors such as social norms or violence against women that hold them back from joining the labour force, little is said about the demand for their work.
To better understand this, she points to the urban and rural break-up of female LFPR.
As the chart below shows, the fall in India’s overall female LFPR is almost fully because of the fall in rural India. It is another matter that urban female LFPR was always pretty low but the dip has been caused by fewer women in rural India being counted as part of the labour force.
“The fall in rural women’s LFPR should make us turn the spotlight on the nature of work availability, especially non-farm opportunities,” she states.
“Education levels of Indian women are rapidly increasing (faster than those for men), and while the share of agriculture work has declined for both men and women, men have been able to find employment in other sectors. But this is not the case for women,” says Deshpande.
“A man with class 10 education can be a postal carrier, a truck driver or a mechanic; these opportunities are not open to women. Hence, it is not surprising that education is associated with a lower WPR for women,” Deshpande quotes Sonalde Desai, professor of Sociology, University of Maryland.
Some people may still wonder why it matters whether women “work”. They may find the Bhagwat kind of social contract quite efficient.
To them, I would suggest reading “The Double X Economy” by Linda Scott, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford and a senior consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Much like the title itself, the book is a spirited and, indeed, triumphant argument against excluding women from the economy.
Let me just share some lines from its last chapter, titled “The path to redemption”, as she succinctly explains how excluding women hurts the whole society and how including them helps.
“…the Double X Economy’s exclusions also incur huge costs for entire societies. High adolescent fertility and infant mortality result from selling young daughters into marriage. Widows who have been left with nothing constitute the largest segment of the extreme poor. Food insecurity and world hunger are both worsened because women can’t own land. After decades of unequal earnings, elderly women are more likely to depend on government assistance. Where women have no autonomy, the costs in death, property destruction, disease, and trauma are incalculable. Children go hungry, sick, and uneducated because their mothers have no economic power.
There is also a hefty opportunity cost. Women who work are the most reliable source of economic growth. When they are kept home because there is no affordable childcare—or because their husbands won’t let them out of the house—they lose and so do their countries. Many societies invest heavily in female education, especially in the West, and then push women out of the workforce—wasting a valuable resource, losing a chance at sustained growth, and widening a skills gap that already threatens their future.
With a deliberate global effort to lift the constraints on the Double X Economy, some of the world’s most tragic problems can be solved. Women’s economic empowerment has been shown, many times, to be the best available weapon against poverty. Economically autonomous women can walk away from abuse. Providing young women with the means to earn shields them from human trafficking. Gender equality reduces violence of all kinds.
The beneficial effects of full inclusion for women would be visible at the institutional and national levels. Including women in the financial system contributes to institutional profit and also reduces risk, increases transparency and also adds stability for the entire economy. Allowing women to participate in international trade increases a nation’s resilience and innovation,” states Scott.
“Because of its power to generate growth and reduce costs, the Double X Economy, when included, pays for itself. Investments made in affordable childcare, for instance, would be offset by an influx of women into the labor force who otherwise would have to stay home, leading to a rise in GDP, and therefore an increase in tax revenues. Yet data shows that men will not lose jobs if women come into the workforce, because the resulting growth drives the creation of more jobs. Men benefit in other ways when they share economic responsibilities with women: overwork, male-dominant workplaces, and the lone responsibility to provide take a profound toll on men worldwide.
Economic results are best when men and women work in a gender-balanced way, whether at work or at home. Studies show consistently that teams of males and females make better investments, produce better products, generate higher returns, and have fewer failures. At home, couples who share housework and paid work have closer relationships with children, more egalitarian values, less interpersonal tension, and more productivity,” writes Scott.
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