Pandemic Cripples India's Working Women

Men as usual have it easier

By: Neeta Lal

New Delhi-based Renu Bisht, 28, resigned from her job at a marketing firm last year even though her monthly income, equivalent to US$450, was critical for her family of six – her husband, two school kids, and dependent in-laws. Lack of domestic help, school closures, and her husband’s 18-hour work-from-home schedule made it “impossible” for her to continue in her job, she says.

“Not only did I have to cook and clean, but also had to help the kids with their homework and take care of the in-laws in the absence of domestic help,” she said. “My husband’s responsibilities at work have doubled since his company downsized, so I was under pressure from all sides to quit.”

Nor is Bisht alone. Millions of working Indian women like her have had to give up their jobs during the pandemic for many reasons, many related to domestic compulsions. Overall, between March and April, an estimated 17 million women were rendered jobless, in both the formal and informal sectors. This is in addition to the fact that they already earn 35 percent less on average than men, a bleak comparison to the global average of 16 percent.

Another study found that Indian women have already lost more jobs than men during the Covid-19 pandemic. While 23.3 percent of male employees have been laid off, 26.3 percent of women met the same fate. The bad news comes on top of a 2019 report by Google and Bain & Company which reported that women were already the worst hit by India’s unemployment crisis.

No surprise then that currently, India’s female labor force participation is the lowest in South Asia. Four of five women are not working in India. Only Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Iran, and the West Bank and Gaza have a lower female labor force participation rate than India. Even neighboring Bangladesh, which has a far smaller economy than India’s, has managed to boost its women’s participation in the labor force by 12 points -- from 24 percent to 36 percent.

Things have been progressively worsening for many reasons, economists say. In 1990, India’s female labor force participation was 30.3 percent. By 2019, it plummeted to 20.5 percent, according to the World Bank. While men’s labor force participation slightly decreased over time, too, it is four times that of women at 76.08 percent in 2019.

Partly because of that, India has also slipped 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Report 2021, becoming the third-worst performer in South Asia.

“The biggest irony is that women are suffering economically despite increasing gender parity in terms of reduced fertility rates, lower maternal mortality, and higher educational attainment,” said Kirti Bhatnagar, a professor at the Indian Institute of Economic Growth, a Delhi-based research organization. “The situation is threatening to deepen existing gender inequities and ravage prospects for women’s future progress on all fronts.”

Experts say socio-cultural conditioning has been fueling the regressive trend over decades. “Indian women are often required to prioritize domestic work, due to societal expectations of them as nurturers and caregivers,” Bhatnagar said. She points to an Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development survey which highlights that on an average, Indian women perform nearly six hours of unpaid work each day, while men spend a paltry 52 minutes.

This asymmetry in the distribution of unpaid care work has ratcheted especially during the pandemic, triggering economic, social, and psychological hardships for women across class divides, said Naina Jaiswal, a woman activist and ex-professor of Sociology at Delhi University.

“This inequity is one of the main reasons why though women represent nearly half of India’s population of 1.4 billion, they contribute only 18 percent to its economic output, about half the global average,” Jaiswal said, “Women face a wide gap in employment, wages, and education. And it’s not just the lower strata. Even highly educated Indian women and those from upper classes bear the primary responsibility for raising children and managing the home.”

Economists suggest that as there are no overnight solutions to the problem, investing in gender-responsive policies, schemes, and budgets that adopt a gender lens is the way to go. Sensitizing men about social stereotyping that require women to take on all responsibilities of family care and childcare which create bottlenecks to women’s labor force participation are vital too. Workplaces would do well to offer women flexible working hours and diversity at the workplace as well as inclusion initiatives such as increased maternity leave and mandatory paternity leave.

Bhatnagar also suggested that in an increasingly digitized economy, bridging the digital divide by providing women greater access to the internet and mobile phones is vital too. She points out that in India in 2019, internet users were 67 percent male and 33 percent female. “This gap is even bigger in rural areas and remains a primary stumbling block for women to access critical education, health, financial and bank services,” she added.

To be fair though, the Indian government has been pursuing gender-responsive budgeting, which is addressing some of these gaps, analysts say. Also, several Indian companies and multinationals with Indian offices have set forth diversity targets that aim to enroll more women at the workplace. Flexible working policies, childcare infrastructure and extended maternity breaks are also making a difference.

But it’s clearly not enough. Apart from policy regulations and their strict enforcement, Jaiswal recommends augmented access to skill development and better paid formal jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities for women. “Loans at minimal interest to encourage more participation from micro-entrepreneurs can go a long way in empowering women and ensuring their financial inclusion especially in semi-urban areas,” she elaborates.

If hurdles to women’s workforce participation were removed, India could gain a lot economically. A report by McKinsey Global Institute points out that if women’s participation in the Indian economy was at par with that of men, the country’s annual GDP could surge by 60 percent above its projected GDP by 2025.

That in itself ought to be a big enough incentive for the government, civil society, and companies to ensure gender equality in the labor force in Asia’s third largest economy.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based senior journalist and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel