India, home to over 1.3 billion people and one of the fastest growing economies in the world has been seeing unprecedented change in people’s lifestyles. On the outset, India straddles two worlds, one of deep rooted tradition and the other of rapid modernisation. The social fabric has gone through momentous transformation as people cluster together in cities, move out of their joint families and seek new jobs and lifestyles. With such a vast population and rapid proliferation of media and pop culture, the very notion of family compared to a few decades ago has been turned on its head.
Indians have traditionally relied on a joint family system and a closely knit community based on religious and caste commonalities. It was not uncommon for families to live together. The biggest shift society has seen is the rise of nuclear families in cities and smaller units living independently from their families. Despite this modernisation, research shows a marked decline in the number of women in the workforce.
India is an outlier among the BRICS nations and fares only better than Saudi Arabia among the G20 countries when it comes to the percentage of women in the labor force. A notable fall in women’s participation in the labor force has occurred in India despite the rising incomes and a strong economic growth. The growing economy has not been inclusive and there has not been a comparable rise in the number of women joining the workforce. In fact, women’s participation has seen a sharp decline in recent years. The Female Labor Force Participation in India between the years 1993 and 2013 was an abysmal 27%. A World Bank report also ranked India 121st among 131 countries in female labor force participation.
The decreasing participation of women has presented the economists and feminists with a conundrum. In spite of increasing social indicators for women, scores of women have been quitting the workforce.
Researchers have come up with a host of reasons as to why Indian women leave the workforce in large numbers. They cite reasons such as increasing household incomes, crimes against women, patriarchy, traditionally assigned roles as caregivers, social conservatism, mechanization of the agricultural sector, and pursuing higher education as to explain the decline in the number of Indian women in the workforce. All these reasons contribute to keeping women away from the workplace and it is difficult to pinpoint one sole reason. However, there does exist a strong correlation between the social conservatism of Indian society and the hurdles it places on women wanting to join the workplace and continue there.
Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India once commented that “If men acquire women-like qualities, they become gods but when women acquire men like qualities, they become (‘rakshasa’) demon like.” This was his reply to demands for increase in women’s quota in local bodies and gram sabhas. He also went on to say that women’s work outside of the family interfered with their primary role as caregivers and mothers. Yogi Adityanath is not the sole Indian politician to have made such sexist remarks. Politicians from different political parties have been known to make such sexist, derisive comments against women, especially women who are active in the public sphere. Development sadly has not changed such beliefs in India. When a woman leaves home for work and gets harassed or abused, the initial reaction in most houses is to stop the woman from going to work. In a paper titled ‘Crime and Women’s Labor Force Participation’, Saha et al explain how crimes against women acts as a deterrent in preventing them from working.
Selvi was one such victim of the convergence of crime against women and traditional social mores. A government employee with a bright future, her career came to a screeching halt when she complained to her husband about the harassment she faced at work. Selvi was immediately pressured to quit her job by her husband as well as her in-laws. Selvi loved her job and had hoped that her husband and his family would have supported her. Instead she had to quit before “people started talking” about the abuse.
There also exists an inherent belief that a woman should stay at home and take care of the husband, kids and other family members. In fact, a most oft repeated phrase in many Indian households is that “A Woman’s place is in the home.” A survey conducted by Reuters/Ipsos in 2010 found that about 54% of Indians believed that women should not go to work. It isn’t just men who hold the view but an equal number of women as well believe that when a man earns enough, a woman does not have to leave the house to work. Economic development and liberalization in India has not percolated everywhere. In fact, recent violence against women and the regressive attitudes showcase the existence of social conservatism in the country.
Social conservatism places a number of restrictions on women, especially when it comes to their economic and social freedom. The role of a caretaker foisted on women from an early age also leads women to drop out of the labor force. With little time to devote to work after taking care of the family, many women end up taking low paying or part-time jobs even if they are qualified to take on more demanding roles. Some women completely drop out of the workforce.
Rising income levels of men in India is another reason many women are dropping out of the workforce. A woman’s contribution to the household income becomes negligible when a man makes enough money to sustain the family. When it comes to choosing between who stays back home to take care of the house and kids, it is mostly women who end up staying home. Entrenched patriarchy and the belief that men are the primary breadwinners of the family also discourage many families from sending their women to work.
In spite of the increasing social indicators in the country and the number of girls pursuing higher education, it remains a fact that not many women in India are joining the workforce in both rural and urban areas. An exclusionary workforce is detrimental to the overall development of the country. However, given the proclivities of Indian men, women and the society at large, it will remain a phenomenon that would be hard to reverse or change for the better. Unless patriarchal attitudes change and working women are not seen as a threat, the decline of women participation in the labor force might continue for years to come.