Indian women are leaving the workforce even as they get better educated

Better education doesn’t equal better jobs.
Better education doesn’t equal better jobs.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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Indian women are more educated than they have ever been. Yet, the latest figures show that fewer of them are working.

Some have attributed the decline to increased enrolment in education of younger population. Nearly half of India’s population is under the age of 25. But the decline in workforce participation figures is reported across all age cohorts for women.

Others believe that the problem lies in the fact that the rate of employment growth has not been commensurate with the income growth for India. But that cannot be a cause because male workforce participation rates have not declined.

A third reason could be that perhaps males remain insulated from the job crises because they are still seen as the primary breadwinners by society. This might necessitate that whenever work is available, it is the men who opt for it, whereas women have the alternative option of choosing to get married and help at home.

But even that cannot explain the decline. Women’s workforce participation rates are similar among the currently married and widowed women. And their combined workforce participation rate is nearly double that of never married women. This reflects the necessity for earning and being independent among these women. In fact, to exercise this option for separation or divorce itself may be made possible by having the access to independent source of income or earning in many cases.

The real reason behind the decline is the drop in agricultural work. As agriculture’s share of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) falls, this is not unexpected. The sector has always involved a majority of India’s workers, but it is now shedding large numbers of women and men across the country, affecting both primary and subsidiary workers.

Amid the declining women’s workforce participation during the last decade, there have been some interesting changes. Remarkable among these is the gains in regular employment both in rural and urban areas and also in formal and informal salaried jobs.

The decline in women’s employment in agriculture is among the self-employed, largely as unpaid family workers. This is a category of work which is probably the least empowering for women, since the work they undertake remains within the folds of family and patriarchy. It is without independent wages or earnings and rarely does it provide direct access or ownership to economic resources. An analysis of the National Sample Survey’s data between 2004 to 2012 reveals that over that time period when there has been an overall decline, male workers have increased but much more as subsidiary workers in agriculture.

The casual workers in agriculture have also declined largely for women, while male subsidiary workers have increased. This is a reflection of the changing nature of farming and labor use patterns. Workers are hired more on contractual and shorter term periods.

Whether those who are dropping out of agriculture are absorbed elsewhere or not is difficult to say. Especially for the women in rural India, who are illiterate or have low levels of education, there are few options for work. Construction and low-end informal services such as domestic workers have generated some employment. But it is not clear whether the women working in these activities are the same persons who have lost employment in agriculture.

The interesting story of employment among the educated women is in regular work, where they have seen consistent growth. Out of the 148m women workers across India in 2004-05, 81% were with no or low education. Only 3% had undergraduate degree or more. This proportion has doubled by 2011-12 to 6%. The total number of women added in the workforce with higher education levels during this period is 3 million. The proportionate increase of highly educated male workers during the same period is lower, albeit their absolute number (12 million) is much greater.

Even during the 2004-2012 period when the overall workforce participation rates declined (largely due to shift away from agriculture), the numbers of additional regular workers increased by 18 million, of which 3.7 million were women. Most of these regular jobs is in the urban areas, nearly 12.8m, while rural areas recorded an additional 5.1 million jobs.

In other words 1.1 million rural women and 2.6 million urban women were added during this short period to the regular workforce. It is the highly educated women who are taking up salaried regular employment in public administration, education, health and social work, banks, financial services, insurance, information technology and so on. The real question is whether there will be enough jobs in these sectors for women to be hired as more of them achieve higher levels of education.