India’s Covid-19 lockdown pushed more women out of an already shrinking female workforce

Alone at the table.
Alone at the table.
Image: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
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India’s coronavirus lockdowns have only fortified the glass ceiling for the country’s female workforce.

Female labour participation rate in India is at the lowest it has been at least in the past four years, according to data released by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a think tank headquartered in Mumbai. The female labour force participation rate (LFPR) is merely 11% in India, compared to 71% for men.

The LFPR is a measure of the population above 15 years of age that is either employed or unemployed but willing to work.

This disparity, according to CMIE’s data, has only worsened because of the Indian government’s harsh lockdowns between March and June to contain Covid-19. “The lockdown experience of urban women is particularly distressing in this case,” observed Mahesh Vyas, CMIE’s managing director.

Even before the lockdown, urban female LFPR was lower than it was for women in rural India. For 2019-2020, rural female LFPR was 11.3% compared to 9.7% for urban women. “Both participation rates are very low but the lower rate among urban women runs against expectations. This is because urban women are expected to be better educated and because urban India is expected to offer them better and more jobs than rural India,” Vyas said.

Such a decline is also in line with the International Labour Organization’s female LFPR for India, which has been consistently shrinking since 2005. According to this data, the total female labour participation rate stands at 20.3% as of November. CMIE’s data on unemployment is collected from surveying 174,405 households over blocks of four months. Official Indian government data are released annually by the National Sample Survey Office.

These data point to an alarming trend not only in the continued decline in female LFPR, but also the lack of any signs of recovery. For instance, 10.7% of the working population was female in 2019-2020. But in April, when organisations laid off employees because of the Covid-19 economic shocks, 13.9% of those impacted by the job losses were women, according to Vyas.

And while the Indian economy saw some recovery after the September quarter, it largely benefitted men. By November, 49% of the job losses impacted women. “The recovery has benefitted all but it benefitted women less than it did men,” Vyas noted.

Job loss among young women

Women in their early 20s, according to CMIE’s data, have been consistently impacted first because of India’s demonetisation move in November 2016, and now because of the Covid-19 job losses.

Data reveal that the FLPR for young women fell from 18% before demonetisation in 2016, to just around 10% a year later. These data are measured by CMIE in blocks of four months called waves. While this number rose to 14.3% in the last wave of 2019, it has now plunged to 8.7%. “Going by the past experience it would take a few years before this damage can be repaired,” Vyas said.