What A Colossal Waste!

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Women’s work is the greatest untapped resource in the world. We undervalue it at our peril, writes Barnana H. Sarkar

Did you know that just one in four Indian women gets paid for her work? According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), over the past 27 years, even as India’s economy has been rapidly expanding, female participation in the paid workforce has declined to 27% from 35% in 1990.To put that in perspective, the global female labour-force participation (FLFP) rate in 2017 averaged 48.6%, while among our neighbours in South Asia, Bangladesh recorded 33% and Sri Lanka 35%.

On the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report Index, India ranks 139 out of 144 countries in terms of women’s economic participation and opportunity. Says Professor Samita Sen, dean, faculty of interdisciplinary studies, law and management at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, “There has been a huge mismatch. You have numbers that are not proportionate (to our gender profile) as there are insufficient employment opportunities.”

What explains this? All over the world, experience has shown that with expanding educational and economic opportunities, women’s participation in paid labour has increased and, in many cases, come to equal that of men. When the Indian economy has been growing at over 6% a year and education levels have been steadily rising, why has one half of our population been gradually withdrawing from the workforce? What is the personal cost to women who quit paid work and what are its social and economic consequences?

Studies have shown that there are three key drivers of women’s participation in the workforce: education level, marital status and her family’s income stability. The World Bank in an April 2017 study noted, “We estimate that this drop in (India’s) FLFP has occurred mainly due to the withdrawal of rural females. Most importantly, approximately 53% of the total drop transpired among rural women within the age group of 15 to 24 years (and) can be fully accounted for by a rise in educational participation.”

Simply put, rising incomes have enabled increasing numbers of the poor to send their children to school. According to a National Sample Survey Organisation survey released in 2015, the rural literacy rate reached 71% while in urban areas it has risen to 86% and in the age group of seven years and above, the male literacy rate is much higher (87%) than the female literacy rate (67%). But, nearly 86% of rural households and 96% of urban households enrol their daughters in primary and secondary schools and women are observed more likely than boys to continue their education.

So that could suggest a better-educated female workforce is in the offing. Sadly, that’s not assured. Education has not helped increase women’s employment. Among graduates in rural areas, almost 67% of girls do not have a paid job while 68.3% of girls who graduate in urban centres are unable to find work in a male-dominated workspace, notes a report by the United Nations Development Programme.

A second factor is marriage and its impact on women’s work choices. As the World Bank study observes, “Marital status has differential effects across rural and urban settings. In comparison to currently unmarried women, the participation rate of married women is visibly higher in rural areas, while it is lower in urban areas.”

In rural India, married women are more likely to join the workforce than unmarried women. That is primarily because they are more likely to be encouraged to join the labour force and help contribute to the family’s earnings. While most rural women engage in agricultural and manufacturing work, most of it is unpaid. Some women even relocate to the nearest urban centres to earn a living for the family.

Married women in rural India are encouraged to work as they contribute to the family’s income, even if it’s unpaid labour (Picture credit: Pinterest)

The situation is the reverse in the cities where, with greater income stability, the family does not require another helping hand. That could be one reason why many educated women in the cities do not look for work or have given up the jobs they had. The improving living standards of the Indian middle-class has allowed women to spend more time with their children and to concentrate on ‘status production’ for their families. The term status production refers to the range of household duties of caring for, and grooming, her family that enhances their overall social standing. But this could also apply to rural families as they get richer.

As the World Bank study notes, “Increases in household-income stability create a lower incentive for women to participate in the labour force. In poor households, secondary workers (usually females) enter the paid labour market ‘temporarily’ to smooth family income, and vice versa. With rising household-income levels, women in rural India withdraw from paid labour and engage in higher status production work at their own home.”

Prof. Sen points out that often a woman is not sufficiently provided for at her workplace. Child care is a major concern for a woman. It has often been cited a key reason why women working in cities are leaving their jobs.“I left my job when my child was born, to complete my PhD,” said Hannah Jaideep, who was formerly with Cognizant Technology Solutions in Bangalore. “I am taking a break now, as most colleges do not have childcare facilities and my child is too small to be left in someone else’s care. However, I want to get back to work as soon as my child turns six, because until then I will have to be with her everytime at home.”

The stark contrast between the lives of urban and rural women is most evident in respect to child care. The availability of a maid to care for her child, if only for a few hours, allows the urban women living in a nuclear family the possibility of pursuing a career outside the home. The maid, usually from the countryside, is forced to leave her own children entirely in the care of her in-laws or relatives to be able to earn a livelihood to support them.

The increasing importance of status production is reflected in a striking statistic. According to the World Bank, India’s FLFP rate is highest at two extremes, among illiterates and among college graduates, in both rural and urban areas. In other words, the female participation rate appears to be strongly correlated with either dire need or with competitive qualifications. It is the in-between layer, the huge number of modestly-educated women in traditional communities who never enter the workforce at all that tips the scale.

But even when a woman works, regardless of how important or remunerative it is, her job is seen as secondary to that of her husband. Say Soma Sarkar, assistant director of the government department of agriculture in Siliguri, “I did not leave my job after my son was born although, as a government employee, I’m entitled to two years’ paid leave until my son is 18 months old. But every time our son falls sick, or there is an emergency in the family, I’m the first one to ask for leave. I guess men still don’t take full responsibility for the family.” Similarly, she points out, when a man is transferred to another location, his wife is expected to quit her job and shift with him.

Sayani Dutta, account coordinator and analyst with IFDS in Toronto migrated to Canada after having worked in major IT companies in India, explains her choice saying, “In India there was some discrimination. I think a woman faces an issue when she comes back to work after maternity leave. She is expected to start from scratch once again, lead a project and play certain roles to get a promotion. It’s a waste of time.”

Most working women face discrimination over pay. Whether she’s an agricultural worker, a business executive or a movie star, she soon learns her work is less valuable than that of her male colleagues. Under the national rural employment guarantee scheme, despite its mandated equal pay, discrimination is institutionalised with women routinely being paid 30% less than men. At the other extreme, top actors in the film industry earn almost five times the amount that top actresses do.


(Credit: World Bank)

A study published by IIM, Bengaluru, Economic Growth and Female Labour Force Participation in India, argues that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2005, could play a prominent role in women participation in the labour force. It guarantees 100 days of employment per household annually and stipulates that men and women are paid equally and childcare facilities are provided at work.

The study concludes the scheme has had a positive impact as there has been a smaller decline in the female-labour-force participation in the NREGA districts compared to ones where it hasn’t been implemented. Women’s safety in a predominantly male workplace is a big concern, due to which women are often compelled to work from home or find work close to home. This forces women to compromise on the kinds of jobs they do. While this is particularly true of women who commute to work, even workplaces aren’t safe.

Amrita Chakraborty, a senior researcher at Venator Search Partners, says that while she faces little discrimination in her job, at times she feels uncomfortable with the way her male colleagues behave with her. “There are laws and policies to prevent such behaviour, but no one cares.”

Women’s participation in the workforce is extremely critical to their economic independence. It also holds the key to a country’s economic development. As the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) points out in its 2015 report The Power of Parity, “Women are half the world’s working-age population but generate only 37% of GDP.” That is a wasted opportunity owing entirely to gender discrimination.

MGI calculates that in a ‘full-potential’ scenario or one in which women participate in the market economy to an identical extent as men, India could increase GDP by 60% and add $2.6 trillion to its national output by 2025. Even if India just matched the highest level of gender equality achieved in South Asia, it would add 16% or $700 billion to its economy by then.

The ILO estimates that of the 865 million women worldwide who have the potential to contribute more fully to their national economies, 812 million live in emerging and developing nations. Women are more likely than men to invest a larger amount of their income in the education of their children. According to the ILO, women’s work, both paid and unpaid, could be the single most important poverty-reducing factor in developing economies.

Tackling gender inequality will certainly benefit businesses both directly and indirectly. Women’s equality in employment would vastly increase the available talent pool. Companies employing more women and headed by gender-diverse boards could enhance corporate governance by gaining a wider range of perspectives. A larger role for women in decision-making positions could, for instance, reduce the high-risk behaviour that has come to characterise the entirely male world of banking and financial trading.

As MGI sums it up so succinctly in its 2015 report, “Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women—who account for half the world’s population—do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer.”

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