India recently made history when its Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell below 2.20 to 2, from 4.97 recorded between 1975 and 1980.
Historically, declining birth rates lead to high per capita gross national income and positive economic development. This key macro indicator may further confirm a recent analysis by Morgan Stanley, which positions India for a period of high growth in the next decade and crowns it as Asia’s fastest growing economy.
Despite the golden era ahead for India and the amazing victory achieved by the Indian women with TFR, a disturbing new trend has emerged that has confused many.
That’s a sharp drop in female employment rates, or female labor force participation, currently on par with war-torn Yemen. Despite the marginal recovery from the pandemic, women remain the biggest victims of the pandemic.
With one of the lowest participation rates in India’s growth history and globally.
“If we look at the time use data (for Indian married women) who spent significantly more time on housework and care work than men, this is particularly significant in states like Bihar… about how we address these inequalities especially in participation in the labor market, but also in domestic and care work, which could be some barrier to women’s labor force participation,” said Diva Dhar, PhD candidate in Public Policy at the Oxford Blavatnik School.
Housework and care work are not only imposed but are internalized prejudices when it comes to Indian women. The diva confirmed this with an experiment she conducted on the Indian website Matrimony, where she created fake profiles of women who were career-oriented and willing to give up their careers after marriage.
According to this experiment, women who were more career-oriented received 20-28 percent fewer marriage proposals compared to women who were willing to quit their jobs after marriage.
“It’s quite interesting personally because a lot of my friends who are very educated women have also left the workforce, a lot of them are not working, again it’s not statistically representative of the larger population, but it’s interesting that a lot of them choose to leave the workforce strengths, they prioritize family and other outcomes over work, even though they have invested a lot of money and time in their education. Diva added.
The pandemic has taken its heaviest toll on women, with the heavy burden of unpaid care work falling on women and largely due to the sharp drop in female employment rates recorded in 2020-21, with the female workforce reported to have fallen to 9 percent during this period . Nevertheless, even after the pandemic, there was a slight recovery in this number, why are women not returning to the workforce?
“I think we’re seeing a scenario where there’s an option to work from home, another scenario is a decline in female labor force participation. Although these two events happened at the same time, there are many things that happened in between. Women clearly lost more jobs than men during the pandemic and these women are still trying to get back, the industries that were most obviously affected during the pandemic were those that had a majority of women in the workforce. It was more of a women-led industry, thirdly, if you look at the women’s business ecosystem, especially women entrepreneurs, especially women-led businesses that are still trying to break through. Only nearly 17-20% of businesses in India are women-owned businesses.
“These have been hit the hardest during the pandemic, which has seen many businesses close, many have had to cut staff and women have also lost their jobs. Again, when you talk about working from home specifically, it requires access to technology, access to the Internet, whereas if you look at the gender gap digitally, women are at a much greater disadvantage than men. I would also like to talk about the vulnerability that women face when working from home – cases of domestic violence have doubled since the pandemic, so women are not in a safe environment in their own homes. Many employee surveys have been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of working from home and people report more burnout, even so women are more prone to burnout than men because we are not only expected to attend to our professional commitments but also devote to housework. So it’s a combination of different factors that discourage women from participating in the labor market, even though they accept options for working from home.” Priyal Keni, Ally for Generational Equality, UN pointed out.
Is the scenario of women not returning to the workforce unique to India, or is there a broader international pattern?
“Only in high-income countries can we see a recovery in employment levels to pre-pandemic levels, in middle-income or low-income countries we see women not returning to the workforce,” Diva said.
However, according to the survey, there is one country that has stood firm as an anomaly in this trend – Bangladesh, which has taken some right steps here with a stunning GDP growth curve and a very healthy female employment rate of 37 percent. Wondering where we’re going wrong and what they’re doing right?
“I think there is a lot of interesting work being done in Bangladesh – on microcredit, women’s books and movements – there is an active civil society that has contributed to positive outcomes for women, such as working to increase women’s education. the garment sector which is a driver of female employment unlike what we have in India, but I cannot say for sure what factors could have caused the difference,” Diva pointed out.
Could the recently released World Value Survey hold an answer? The Wave 7 survey recorded from 2017-2022 ranks Bangladesh as a highly traditional, survival-oriented society that values traditional roles, honors the conventional family, but places great emphasis on economic security. It’s too early to tell, but perhaps the positive employment numbers for women may stem from a need for financial security rather than a reflection of progressive gender roles in society.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center estimated that nearly 40 percent of Indians want to stick to traditional gender roles in their marriages — with more opting for men to take on professional commitments and women to take on housework to lead and support their families. This figure is well above the global median of 23% for preference for traditional gender roles, and much closer to countries such as Tunisia and Indonesia.
My research on the declining participation of women in the labor force has raised many more questions than answers- Is the answer to getting women back to work more about preferring gender roles at home?
A key driver of this trend may be the internalized and culturally accepted bias of viewing domestic and caregiving work as the responsibility of women and professional work as the responsibility of men.
In terms of formal institutions, the disparity can be addressed through fixed quotas, greater representation, policies and the creation of a supportive ecosystem. How do we correct the cultural bias we continue to cultivate at home? Women will only get into work if their husbands, children and close friends and relatives support them and encourage them at home to show themselves and the opportunities that are now available. We hope that as India prepares for another decade of promising growth, women will step up and become equal participants in this victory scenario.