What influences women’s participation in the workforce in India, and how it fares across industries

Women’s participation across sectors in India, and factors influencing it

Upgrades in education and career opportunities have been strongly promoted in India, to ensure universal participation of the labour force that cuts across gender disparity. However, women in India’s workplaces remain significantly under-represented. 

As the second-most populous country in the world, India has a female labour force participation rate (LFPR) of 20%, which is not even half of the global average of 47% in 2020. Women workers in India are predominantly employed in agriculture and traditional rural industries, or the service sector. However, there are numerous sectors and industries where female participation can be just as favourable as male participation, if not more. 

Women’s employment is critical not only for their empowerment, but also because of their efficiency in certain fields, and for maximising the productivity of the nation’s economy.

Key factors that influence women’s participation in the workforce

  • Basic education: The contribution of women to a society’s transition from a pre-literate to a literate state is undeniable. Basic education is key to the nation’s ability to develop and achieve sustainable human productivity targets. We are all too aware of the phenomenal contribution of Savitribai Phule, Ramabai Ranade, Shakuntala Devi, and Asima Chatterjee in uplifting education.
  • Pay gap and social factors: Women continue to face many barriers to enter the labour market and accessing decent work, and face a disproportionate range of challenges. For instance, in many regions of India, the idea of women working outside the home is stigmatised, forcing the unemployment rate of women to remain high. Indian women are estimated to be earning only 65.5% of what their male counterparts earn for the same tasks. Lack of flexible work opportunities, in part time as well as full time jobs, is cited as a deterrent to women participation. 
  • Rural-urban dynamics: Ironically, urban female participation is significantly lower than in the rural areas, despite greater educational levels. The reason is that agriculture and allied activities do not need a high degree of skills and specialisation. Besides, poverty stands as a detriment for rural families, because of which rural women are open to unskilled and semi-skilled jobs to support their families.
  • Leadership and entrepreneurship: Women generally make great leaders as they can balance professional and personal leadership skills. A team stands to perform better with a woman as a team leader who can combine professional efficiency with empathy, and nurturing and listening skills. However, so far Indian women have failed to achieve goals in terms of leadership presence. Women’s presence in leadership and management positions has been stagnant during the second part of the last decade. In NSE-listed companies, there were 3.7% women CEOs and MDs in 2019, compared to 3.2% in 2014. 

Related: If you’re an employed woman, here’s how to beat the economy slowdown

Sectoral successes and shortfalls

  • Healthcare: This is one of the best industries for women workers. There is no evident gender gap in career progression, unlike in many other industries. At present, female presence is only 11% in the Indian pharmaceutical and healthcare sector, but a scope of improvement exists. The prevailing COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed a large number of women health workers participating as frontline fighters.
  • Technology and core sectors: When it comes to hiring women in the technology sector, numbers are trailing the rest of the job market. Research claims that women now make up 28% of the IT workforce in India. The Indian IT-BPM sector is currently working to maintain its leadership in attracting women in the workforce. However, sectors like oil and gas continue to fare poorly, with 7% women representation, while automobile has only 10%. 
  • Agrarian sectors: Agriculture and rural development have witnessed a rapid growth of women employment at both the national and international level. Apart from regular food crop cultivations, women’s representation is quite high in tea plantations, a prominent agricultural export product from India. Assam tea, for instance, employs over 7 lakh people across its 800-odd tea plantations, 60% of which are women. To capitalise on this presence in the agricultural sector, efforts are being made to nurture women for entrepreneurial and agro-marketing leadership positions too. Krishi Vigyan Kendras have trained nearly 2 lakh farm women, girls, and women extension workers.
  • Education sector: The gender gap is prominent even in the education sector with nearly 42% female teachers in India. Nevertheless, it is a prominent employer with most of the gap in higher positions only. Roughly, an equal number of male and female teachers are employed in temporary teaching positions, while female teachers exceed male counterparts in tutorial position. The scope of improvement remains in career growths and female occupancy in top academic positions.
  • Other sectors: With the boom in the retail economy, women participation in entrepreneurial roles and customer-facing service jobs had increased. As retail saw a lull due to the pandemic, women-led business ventures have featured in the e-commerce space. Besides, lesser-explored employers like the Indian military has seen a threefold rise in women employment. Meanwhile, women continue to emerge with unique career choices, be it driving city buses, wine tasting, stand-up comedy or bartending. One can hope some of them will set a trend and open up larger female participation in traditionally male-dominated employment bastions.

Related: Women at work: How are they faring – at home and abroad?

Last words

To increase women’s participation in the workforce, the focus should be placed on education and skill development, to maximise their employability in industries that are a natural fit for women. The National Research Centre for Women in Agriculture in Bhubaneshwar has worked on the development of methodologies for the identification of gender implications in farming systems approach and developed women-specific technologies under different production systems. Such efforts can help women retain their employment as technology continues to replace many labour-intensive processes across farmlands and factories. How digital fluency can help women close the gender gap at workplaces