No country for women

Edition 31. Why don't more women work in India?

India has copped a brutal blow due to COV19. The collapse of medical infra and the resultant deaths dominated global headlines. These will leave lifelong scars for those who suffered and on the frontline. Under the surface, there are second-order effects of the pandemic that are quietly altering lifelong outcomes for many.

Today, I want to focus on one such trend - the brutal economic impact faced by women that threatens their already perilous economic safety in one of the most patriarchal societies globally.


As many have pointed out, COVID-19 has dramatically increased inequality. The stock markets do not necessarily reflect the prevailing misery.

Here is Nithin Kamath of Zerodha (India’s largest broking house).

The pain in the real world is harsh and is borne more by the poor

Between March and August 2020, an average Indian household’s total income—compared to the same months in the previous year—dropped by 17%. Or, about ₹24,949. This money has been erased from a household’s annual budget.

While the loss, on average, is steep, households with lower incomes saw a larger share of their usual earnings disappear than households with higher incomes.

While that is being documented, it is the *alarming* economic impact on women that is largely missing from the discourse.

India has had an unemployment crisis for a while that has exacerbated over the past decade. Today, over 600 million (!) working-age Indians (out of ~1050 million) do not look for work largely because there are few jobs available.

A report by the Azim Premji University looked at employment trends in 25 years+ bucket (emphasis mine).

Between 2011- 12 and 2017-18 the working-age population grew by 115.5 million. But the labor force grew only by 7.7 million and the workforce actually shrank by 11.3 million. There was an absolute increase of 19 million in the number of unemployed.

In the last decade (before the pandemic), a population nearly equal to twice the population of the U.K. entered the working age (25+ in this context) and the number of employed declined on an absolute basis! Far from keeping pace with the demand placed by India’s demographics, the country is actually losing jobs.

Bad as the situation is, it is the women who are bearing a disproportionate cost of it. Even before the pandemic, far too few women were in the labor force in India (employed and those actively looking for work).

An unfortunate correlation to the economic growth in India post 91 seems to be the falling share of women in the labor force. In absolute terms, ~80M women are in the labor force in India compared to ~320M+ men. The share of women employed or actively looking for work (Labor force participation rate - LFPR) has fallen from 30% in 1991 when India was on the cusp of liberalization to 20% by 2019. To place that number in context, it is the lowest rate in all of South East Asia including Afghanistan. Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Yemen, Jordan, and Iran do worse.

Few contend that increasing mechanization has pushed out women from the agricultural workforce, while failure to create mass factory-driven employment left few avenues as alternatives (unlike Bangladesh which has become a textile powerhouse). Another contributing factor is the nature of the jobs demanded. As female education parameters have improved, so has the demand for paid jobs that simply do not exist (only 11% of all central government employees are women). Notice the steep fall in rural female LFPR.

Patriarchy and a general disregard for the female agency have made this worse. Women have increasingly retreated from the workforce to spend more time on domestic chores as the need for a second income decreased with the rising affluence of an average Indian household.

COVID-19 wreckage

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in India’s labor markets, further entrenching this galling disparity. Widespread shutdowns and the ensuing recession has impacted women severely. Women form ~10% of the total workforce but accounted for 13% of all job losses in April 2020. While most men, recovered their jobs by the end of the year, women did not. This chart by the researchers at Azim Premji University is a telling one about the disproportionate economic impact that women have faced in India due to COVID-19.

From the same report -

Even after controlling for various social and demographic attributes (including age, education, caste, religion, presence of children in household, and marital status) and labour market factors (such as experience, work arrangement, sector of work) women were seven times more likely to lose employment during the lockdown relative to men and, upon having lost employment, eleven times more likely to not return to work post lockdown.

This is not limited to the informal sector alone. ~10M women are employed in salaried jobs (out of 50M total salaried jobs in India). While men got by relatively unscathed in the pandemic, some estimates suggest that over 50% of women might have churned out of these jobs in the same period.

The burden of household chores

Indian women spend over 4 hours every day on unpaid domestic chores including childcare (Indian men spend 25 minutes).

Notice the drastic fall in rates of employment for women with kids <5 years of age in the chart below (source). No such impact was felt for men.

To summarize, there is an unemployment crisis in India. However, to state it in those terms would be underselling the dis-service the country has done to women. Compared to men, far fewer women elect to work. When they do, they are offered jobs that are more informal in nature. They are actively underpaid compared to men, are expected to do more housework than unemployed men, and are the first to leave their jobs in times of crisis - mostly to never return.

Patriarchy has endangered the economic resilience of Indian women and it only got worse during the pandemic. About time for the policymakers, CEOs, hiring managers, and the HR departments across India to take note.

I don’t have memes to share on this post. This model of economic growth is a parody in and of itself if it cannot take half of its population along with it.

What should I write about? Share your thoughts at or on Twitter, or leave a comment. Stay safe!

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