The Platform

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Despite some gains made by women in India they still face significant hurdles in the labor market.

The Indian labor market is a tableau of contrasts and continuities. It is a landscape where persistent gender disparities—occupational segregation, unequal access to leadership, the shadows of traditional gender norms—loom large, reflecting the complexities of a society shaped by layers of history, culture, and societal norms. Indian state and central governments have embarked on labor reforms with a focus on women, but the challenge now lies in fortifying these reforms, ensuring that they do not inadvertently create negative repercussions.

The narrative of women’s labor participation in India is marked by a paradox. Despite an era of economic growth, official government data highlights a decline in women’s labor force participation from 35 to 24 percent between 1993 and 2011, with a modest 23 percent of working-age women engaged in the workforce. The decline is stark in high-skill professions, where the representation of women in high-return roles—senior officers, legislators, and managers—plummeted from 13 percent in 2011 to a mere 7 percent in 2016.

Against this backdrop, the crafting of inclusive pathways for women’s development and providing leadership opportunities, in the face of the shifting labor landscape, is imperative. By dismantling gender biases and stereotypes, this essay asserts the urgency of a sustainable and inclusive female presence in the labor market, elucidating critical issues, charting the trajectory of progress, and proposing recommendations for a balanced, diverse, and dynamic workforce.

Gender discrimination in India operates subterraneously. The stigmatization of working women and their migration for work remains a formidable barrier. Economist Arielle Bernhardt aptly notes that a woman “working outside the home drains household status in an extremely patriarchal society.”

The International Labour Organization’s 2011 report indicates a troubling trend: the number of rural women and urban women engaged in domestic duties increased from 29 to 35.3 percent and 42 to 46.1 percent, respectively, between 1993-94 and 2011. This surge, attributed to rising household incomes which ostensibly reduce the economic need for women to work, belies deeper issues rooted in four key challenges.

The scourge of gender-based occupational segregation persists, with the cyclical nature of women’s work contributing to their diminished presence in the labor force, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The labor force participation rate for women saw a significant uptick of 1.57 percentage points or 27 percent, propelled not just by the economic tremors of lockdown but by persistent gender-wage gaps, particularly in the service sector, and a pattern of part-time employment for women with lower wages.

Workplace discrimination, spanning harassment to career progression, engenders a hostile environment, further deterring full female labor engagement. The Pew Research Center’s 2022 findings reveal a startling disconnect: only 23 percent of Indians, including women, acknowledge the rampant and growing issue of such discrimination—a recognition gap that, along with policy shortfalls, entrenches inequality.

Direct benefits transfers in India, though crucial for the social sector, often overlook women, typically favoring household welfare without directly empowering them.

Experimenting with gender quotas, such as Rajasthan’s 30 percent reservation for women in government jobs, has shown promise, but broader implementation is required for meaningful impact.

To address these disparities, we must consider labor policy reforms that not only aim to increase female labor force participation but also tailor skilling programs to women’s unique safety and mobility concerns. Migration support centers could effectively dismantle labor market barriers, leveling the playing field.

Subsidies and tax benefits could incentivize women-friendly policies in both public and private sectors. The Maternity Leave Act, though well-intentioned, has faltered in execution, as evidenced by the low employment rates post-maternity leave according to the TeamLease Report of 2018.

Monitoring quotas and vocational centers, alongside complementary policies, can serve as checks and balances, actively reducing bias and promoting affirmative action, potentially replicating the success seen in other monitored labor policies.

The confluence of social, economic, and cultural dynamics that shape gender roles in the labor force offers both challenges and opportunities. Understanding the root causes, crafting targeted policies, and fostering supportive initiatives are essential to dismantling the barriers outlined. Advancing gender parity in the labor force is not just strategic but an ethical imperative. An intersectional approach, considering the varied experiences and needs of women across different strata, is vital to forge substantial progress.

Ainesh Dey is an incoming freshman at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Ainesh's interests include diplomacy, foreign policy, advocacy and regulatory affairs in light of a rapidly changing sequence of events and a dramatic shift in the geopolitical equilibrium.