Female Labour Force in India – Trends and Challenges – Explained, pointwise

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The UN has given the theme Gender Equality today for a Sustainable Tomorrow’ for the International Women’s Day 2022 on March 08. The day is celebrated to sensitise masses regarding the immense contribution of females towards our society and their under-utilised potential across the globe. The true capabilities of women have not been duly harnessed by many nations and India is no exception to it. This is indicated by the low participation rate of female labour force in India. This is despite many initiatives taken by the Government like the Maternity Benefit Act, PM Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) etc. 

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What is the current status of the female labour force in India?

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2020, only 18.6% of working-age women in India participate in the labour force. This is three times lower than men.

According to the World Bank, Indian women’s participation in the formal economy is among the lowest in the world—only some parts of the Arab world perform worse.

According to a 2018 study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than 95% of India’s working women are informal workers.  

The worrying aspect that the female labour force participation has shown a decreasing trend in the recent years.

The image depicts trend of female labour force in India participation rate

Source: London School of Economics Blog

What are the issues faced by the female labour force?

High Degree of Informalization: According to the ILO data (2018), about 88% of women employed in industries and 71% in services are informal workers. This creates severe hardships for them like highly precarious jobs/conditions, and lack of social protection. A WHO bulletin observes that ‘women’s informal work is central to the feminisation of poverty‘.

The image presents the perspectives on Feminization of Poverty in the content of Female Labour Force

Low and Unequal Pay: The Economic Survey 2018 showed that Indian women typically earn low wages working in highly insecure jobs. Further India had the largest gender gap in median earnings of full-time employees in 2015.

Glass Ceiling: The glass ceiling is an invisible barrier that separates women from top management positions. Indians still perceive women as weak, unaggressive, and emotional for higher level management positions. An IIM Ahmedabad study (2022) found that women who make it to top leadership positions earn 15% less than their male counterparts on an average. The number of women directors has inc­reased from 4.5% in 2014 to around 16% in 2020 due to regulatory requirements but is still below the desired levels.

Read More: Women execs earn Rs 85 for every Rs 100 earned by men: IIMA study

Stereotyping of Jobs: The societal notions about ‘gendered occupations’ limit the role of women to specific job profiles like nursing, teaching, gynaecologist etc. There are tangible and intangible barriers to entry of women in multiple professions like heavy engineering, law enforcement, armed forces etc. 

What are the reasons for low participation of female labour force?

Financial Constraints: Many families don’t have enough resources to invest prudently on their child. This inhibits expenditure on women’s health and education which results in poor participation.

Cultural practices: Many women are not allowed to work after marriage. Further child care is considered as a sole responsibility of women which discourages women from joining the labour force. 

The image explains low female labour force in India due to uneven housework

Security Concerns: The high incidents of violence against women discourages women to work in night like their male counterparts. Further, instances of sexual exploitation at work induces women to opt out of labour force due to family pressures.

Political Vacuum: Women constitute around 50% of Indian population however the current Lok Sabha has only 14.4% women. This inhibits a more gender supportive policy formulation for encouraging participation in economic activities. This also reflects lack of gender perspectives in legislations. 

Legally sanctioned gender discrimination: There are several Union and State Laws that end up discriminating against women e.g., The Factories Act prohibits female employees from cleaning, lubricating, or adjusting machines, and working in operations deemed hazardous. 22 states prohibit the employment of women in up to 80 different processes like working on stone-cutting machines. Many States continue to restrict women from working in several jobs in factories, commercial establishments, and plantations.

Some State laws mandate prohibitions against women working at night in factories, commercial establishments, plantations, and as contract and migrant workers. Only Gujarat and Kerala allow female migrant workers to work at night in all situations.

The image describes the Handicaps faced by Migrant Women Female Labour Force

The ‘State of Discrimination Index’ tracks how states treat female jobseekers on four freedoms. This includes (a) Freedom to work at night; (b) To work in jobs deemed hazardous; (c) To work in jobs deemed arduous, and (d) To work in jobs deemed morally inappropriate. As per the Index,  Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa provide the greatest freedom for women to choose work. On the other hand, Odisha, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal impose the most restrictions.

Lack of access to health and childcare: A study by the ILO in 2016 pointed out that a lack of access to quality child care services forces women workers to leave the labour force. This ceases their earning, and expose them to discriminatory employment practices, and to significant economic and health risks.

What is the significance of enhancing female labour force participation?

Tackling poverty: Female participation will ensure greater disposable income and reduce the poverty levels in society. It will also tackle the phenomenon of feminisation of poverty that is a result of highly informalised work performed by women.

Improvement in Social Indicators: Encouraging more women to enter the formal workforce will improve indicators like IMR, MMR etc.. This would happen as women will get access to good health facilities and avoid child marriage.

Self Confidence and Dignity: Women who are able to earn for herself are more confident and prefer to live a dignified life. Financial independence enables women to play a greater role in decision making like family planning.

Global Commitments: The International Labour Organisation charter, UN Declaration on Human Rights etc. place a positive obligation to enhance female participation. Improving FLFPR is related to achievements of SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities).

Economy Boost: McKinsey Global Institute had estimated that by 2025, equal opportunities for women in India could add US$ 700 billion to the economy. Similarly, the IMF chief has said that gender parity in the workforce can improve India’s GDP by 27%.

What steps have been taken by the Government to enhance female labour force participation?

Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017: The Act more than doubled the duration of paid maternity leave for women employees to 26 weeks. It proposed an option to work from home after this period, on mutual agreement with the employer. It made crèche facilities mandatory for establishments employing 50 or more women.

Anganwadi centres under the ICDS: They provide maternal and child nutritional security, a clean and safe environment, and early childhood education. Thus, they facilitate the ability of women to re-enter work post-childbirth.

National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013: Apart from providing affordable food, it entitles pregnant and lactating mothers to a cash transfer of at least INR 6,000. This is done so as to break the compulsion for early returning back to work.

Stand up India: The scheme facilitates bank loans for setting up a new enterprise in manufacturing, services, agri-allied activities, or the trading sector by SC/ST/Women entrepreneurs. It provides bank loans between INR 10 lakh and up to 1 crore.

What are the shortcomings in the measures undertaken by the Government?

Limited coverage of informal sector: Many schemes are unable to cover the informal sector due to the lack of reliable data.  As a result majority women remain devoid of key social, health and maternity benefits.

Non-Comprehensive nature: The schemes don’t provide adequate coverage e.g., Anganwadi Centres do not cater to children under the age of three. Further, the centres function only for a few hours a day, making it inconvenient to send and pick up children during work hours.

Reduction in Benefits: PM Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) was notified to fulfil the objective of NFSA, 2013. However it limits the benefit to the first birth and has also reduced the amount to INR 5,000 from INR 6,000 under the NFSA, 2013.

Improper Budgetary Management: The budgetary allocations are not properly spent and we often see a sufficient degree of un-utilised funds despite the March rush by the departments.

What corrective steps can be undertaken?

First, the welfare schemes should be made more comprehensive. Early intake of children in the Anganwadi centres can have dual benefits. It will allow mothers time for paid work and converge with the National Education Policy 2020 mandate. NEP acknowledges quality Early Childhood Care and Education for children in the 0-6 age group.

Second, the States should review legislations like the Factory Act, Shops and Establishment Act etc.. and liberalise the restrictions on women. The best practices from well performing States can be adopted across all States e.g., Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are the only two states that allow women to work in all processes in all establishments.

Third, the focus should be on creation of more Self Help Groups. They are of immense reliance and drastically enhance women participation as seen in case of Kudumbashree model of Kerala.

Fourth, the Government should come up with innovative solutions to enhance female retention in industries e.g, Public crèches can be operated at worksite clusters such as near industrial areas, markets, dense low-income residential areas, and labour nakas. 

Crèches closer to the workplace allow for timely breastfeeding and attending to emergencies. This model has been tested successfully by Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Sangini in some Indian cities.


There is a need to take multiple steps to augment the female labour force participation in India in order to realise the numerous social and economic benefits that accrue from greater presence of women in the workforce. Additionally this will help achieve the target of Sustainable Development Goal 5 which focuses on gender equality. 

Source: The Hindu, Live Mint, Live Mint, Live Mint

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