Women’s Participation in Labour Force

Workforce of a nation is one of the most important factors/resources that steer the country and plays a pivotal role in its growth and development. Women account for approximately 50% of the world population. However, unfortunately, they do not contribute proportionately to the workforce.

The ILO’s report titled “The gender gap in employment: What’s holding women back?” substantiates the gap with empirical data. The report states that globally Female Labour Force Participation Rate is about 47%, while that of men is at 72%, accounting for a huge gap of 25%. Iraq records the highest gap at 60.7%, while India is not far away at 50.9% (FLFPR @ 19.20%, MLFPR @70.10%).

Brief History 

In the early 1800s, with the advent of industrialisation, more and more women started joining the workforce; before that, women were primarily limited to household work. A few years before World War I, a lot of women were recruited into the workforce to fill in the huge gap created due to the men being recruited into the army through conscription

Gradually, women’s participation in the workforce increased, however, there was still job categorization and pay disparity; it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the fight against these is still on.

In the Indian context, women have been a part of the less skilled jobs since the times unknown. Women’s workforce in the agricultural sector increased tremendously as the men migrated to the urban areas to find better opportunities; women took care of agriculture, and this phenomenon came to be known as the “feminization of agriculture”. However, it is to be noted that the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) in India has fallen from 30.27% in 1990 to 20.8% in 2019, as per data from the World Bank. Few economists argue that this is due to the U-shaped hypothesis between the long-term FLPR and the economic development of the economy.

Factors contributing to this gap

Social Norms: Despite all developments and advanced technologies, we still witness women succumbing to various social norms such as early marriage, gender roles, the purdah system, dowry harassment etc., to name a few. The gender hierarchy often leads to women either being forced to or brainwashed into giving up on their dreams and aspirations. In cases where she is allowed to work, time poverty becomes a huge challenge as she is disproportionately overburdened by household responsibilities, caregiving activities to the children, elderly etc.

Access to Education: Access to quality education is a major challenge in developing countries in general, and the situation is even worse when it comes to girls’ education. However, various efforts are being made (Beti Padhao-Beti Bachao, Mid-day meals etc.), but various factors such as patriarchy, poverty, the stigma around menstruation, discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, fear of safety fuel the number of girl children that drop out of the schools every year. To add to these, the Government schools in India are not evenly distributed, which means that the schools are far off, and the girl child is not allowed by the families to travel. In situations where the family can afford the education of only one child, the parents in most families would give preference to the male child.

Lack of safety in the workplace and safe transport: Lack of safe and accessible transport is primarily a challenge in developing economies. In India, public transport is extremely overcrowded (not everyone can afford private transport), making it a usual spot for sexual harassment, which further discourages women from taking up jobs.

With respect to the work environment, the situation is worse in the unorganized and informal sectors, as it is extremely challenging to monitor and address the issues in the unorganized sectors. However, the situation is not limited to the unorganized sectors. Recently, we have witnessed a lot of women from different social setups, sectors, and age groups voice out their sexual harassment encounters during the “Me too moment”.

Childcare: As per the report stated supra, this is a major challenge in both developing and developed economies. Given the gender roles, it decreases the women’s participation by almost 5% in developing economies and 4% in developing economies as the mother is assumed to be the obvious primary caregiver of the child. We all must have seen at least one woman in our close circles who has sacrificed her career to attend to the needs of her child. It is not just the affordability of child care that pushes them to give up on their career, but also the social construct. It is expected out of her to do so, and she is labelled “selfish” if she chooses to do otherwise.

Ground Reality

After managing to win over all the odds and carving her way out into the workforce, there are new challenges staring at her making her journey relatively more challenging than her male counterpart/peer.

Glass Ceiling Effect: Women are conceived to be less competent/incompetent for leadership roles; reasons often cited are that women have household responsibilities and are emotionally incapable of handling the stress. Although the number of women in the workforce is gradually increasing, the number of women in the top strata/ leadership roles still remains meagre despite their talent, knowledge, skills and vigour. The very fact that the world’s oldest democracy: The USA, still has never had a female President makes it clear that this is not an issue in the developing economies alone. Women as iconic as Ms. Indra Nooyi, Ms. Kiran Majundar Shaw have openly expressed that even they have experienced this phenomenon.

Patriarchy: Woman experience patriarchy in all walks of life. Ms. Kamla Bhasin, a social scientist, rightly said, “The extent and nature of patriarchy may differ in different societies, families and environments, but it is neverInfo1 really absent.” A lot of things happening around us prove her right. For example, In the recent past, we all have witnessed the unfortunate, orthodox and regressive arguments in the Permanent Commissioning of Women in Defence Services Case in the Highest Court of the country, the reason quoted for women not being allowed to be a part of the permanent commission was “rank & file being male, predominantly from a rural background, with prevailing societal norms, troops not yet mentally schooled to accept women in command.

Pay Disparity: As mentioned above, this isn’t something new; pay disparity has existed ever since women first joined the workforce. As per the report titled “The Glass Ceiling”, published by IIM Ahmedabad, “In India, at individual level, the pay disparity is at approximately 2%. However, the gap widens as the woman advances in her career and goes as high as 7%. Discriminations like these are demotivating and have the potential to affect the morale of several aspiring women.

Pink Collar Jobs: Women across the globe often experience many barriers merely by virtue of being a woman. It is believed that women’ belong‘ to a certain industry more than the other. They are boxed and considered fit for the roles of a teacher, nurse, social worker, secretary etc., to name a few. This notion makes it difficult for women to make their way in other industries despite the required skills and qualifications. Today, women are excelling in various fields such as Engineering, Astronomy, Technology, Medicine, Politics, and Sports, yet they still dominate in the above-mentioned caregiving roles. In this context and the background of all the technological advancements and development, women are still considered unfit for combat roles in a lot of countries.

Efforts to bridge the gap

The Governments, intergovernmental organizations, various agencies and non-profit organisations are making efforts to help women have better access to education, opportunities and spreading awareness about their rights.

Efforts by the Indian Government

Amendments in Maternity Benefits Act: The increase in maternity leave from 12-26 weeks is a welcome change. Also, the mandatory provision of crèche in establishments with more than 50 employees is the need of the hour as it will help women strike a balance and can stop women from quitting their jobs post maternity.

Code of wages, 2019: It seeks to universalize minimum wage without any discrimination to promote social justice. Although this only covers the lower strata, it addresses the issue of pay disparity to a certain extent.

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013: The perception towards sexual harassment has changed after the Supreme Court of India, in the case Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthanlaid down guidelines for combating sexual harassment. It was in this landmark judgment that theInfo 2 Supreme Court, for the first time, recognized the right against sexual harassment as part of the right to livelihood and right to equality.

In this background, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 was enacted to provide a safe work environment and attempts to protect women from sexual harassment and also creates a redressal mechanism for the same.

Self Help Groups (SHG): Various schemes such as Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) etc. are schemes introduced by the Government and led by Self Help Groups to enable financial independence and skill development of woman in rural India.

SEWA Sanghini Child Care Workers’ Cooperative is an innovative initiative where integrated childcare is provided to children for working women helping them focus on work.

Various other schemes: Various skill development schemes such as PMKVY (Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana), JSS (Jan Shikshan Sansthan) and various other schemes give priority to women to help them achieve financial independence. Also, 19 National Skill Training Institutes are being set up exclusively for women across the country. MUDRA (Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency) loans are also being provided to aspiring women entrepreneurs.

Importance of Women in Workforce

Participation of women in the workforce is not only important for the empowerment of women but for the growth and development of the economy as a whole. The level of progress and quality of a democracy can be assessed by the status of women in that country.

Various indices such as Global Gender Gap Index, Gender Development Index, SDG Index take into consideration the FLFPR, Political empowerment of women (measured by the gap between men and women at the highest level of political decision making through the ratio of men to women in parliamentary positions). These indices help in establishing a global reputation; a good rank/score would paint a good picture and would enable better ties and opportunities for the country.

A Great Example

Bangladesh is a great case study of how its investment in the empowerment of its women is paying back. The FLFPR in Bangladesh has steadily increased in the last three decades, reducing the gap in the LFPR between men and women. This was possible as the Government invested in primary and secondary education and provided stipend to the female students to encourage them. It also focused on comprehensive family planning and to include women in decision making roles; seats have been reserved for women. These policy changes have shown a great result in the growth and development of the economy.

The increase in women’s participation in Bangladesh’s economy is strongly associated with the development of the apparel industry, which today accounts for about 80% of the country’s exports. We could draw inspiration from Bangladesh and work on gender justice which would, in turn, help in increasing the growth and development of the economy in the long run.

 Way Forward

With the advent of globalisation and technology, it is easier than ever in the history of mankind to increase the workforce participation of women as knowledge and opportunities are available at the comfort of one’s home.

Governments through their policies, such as the introduction of mandatory paid paternity leave could encourage men to shoulder the responsibility of child care. Various other stakeholders such as women’s organizations and companies can make a great deal of change by spreading awareness, imparting computer literacy to counter the digital divide, investing in skill development, women’s education and sanitation.

Changes also have to take place at grassroots level; the root cause of most of the challenges mentioned above is the patriarchal mind-set, this makes it extremely important to sensitize men and understand the importance of sharing responsibilities and debunking social norms/gender roles.

Women, on the other hand, shall stand tall and not succumb to social and structural barriers. We have witnessed great women like Mrs. C.B. Muthamma striding her way up by fighting against the unreasonable and regressive system.


To conclude, it would be fair to say that for the growth and development of an economy, it is of utmost importance to unleash the fullest potential of the maximum labour force possible (Number of people working, willing to work and able to work) of the economy and since women form approximately 50% of the same, it is the need of the hour to invest in women empowerment.



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