‘Indian Women’s Education Rates Are Rising, Fertility Falling, But A Marriage Penalty Keeps Them From Working’

08 Feb 2023 19 min read  Share

Rohini Pande, professor of economics and director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, says surveys show women want to work, with varying preferences of where or how much. Policy should focus on how to enable them, for women who earn a wage have a better say in household matters, are less likely to suffer domestic violence, and are more likely to improve their children's lives.

Rohini Pande, professor of economics and director of the Economic Growth Center, Yale University. Photo: Dan Renzetti

Mumbai: Only one in every four women in India goes to work, according to the government of India’s data for the years 2020-21. 

On assuming the presidency of the Group of 20, a 19-country forum that seeks to shape and strengthen global governance on all major international economic issues, the government said its presidency marks the beginning of ‘Amritkaal’ (literally translated as the age of divine nectar), the 25-year period leading up to the centenary of India’s independence. The goal was a “futuristic, prosperous, inclusive and developed society”, according to a government statement issued in December 2022.  

Women, whose participation in the labour force is a globally accepted driver of growth, indicating potential for rapid economic growth, were opting out of the work force between the 1990s and 2018, before their labour force participation rate (LFPR) improved over the last few years to 25.1% as reported in the annual Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of 2020-21.

That is lower than every other member of the G20. 

(Saudi Arabia’s female labour force participation rate, according to modelling by the International Labour Organization, was 31% in 2021; Turkiye 39% 2019;  and Mexico 44% in 2021, the G20 nations with female labour force participation closest to India’s.) 

India’s low rates of women’s participation in labour are also despite their rising education levels and despite the fact that Indian women are having fewer babies—the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) recorded a dramatic decline in fertility rates, to below 2.0 (or below the replacement level).   

Renewing a debate on the inclusion of unpaid work in the calculation of gross domestic product (GDP), the government of India’s Economic Survey report for 2022-23 cited “measurement issues” in calculating female labour force participation rates. 

In a statement, the government claimed the narrative of Indian women’s low LFPR “misses the reality of working females integral to the economy of the household and the country”. The survey design is of particular relevance in measuring female LFPR, it said, saying there was a need to “broaden the horizon of measuring work” for women. 

In other words, the restricted definition fails to record the value of women’s unpaid domestic work as well as “expenditure-saving work” such as collecting firewood, cooking, tutoring children, etc.

Rohini Pande, professor of economics and director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, told Article 14 that India’s unique marriage market may hold an explanation for the paradoxical low work force participation rate of Indian women.   

Pande’s research focuses on how institutions shape patterns of economic and political advantage in society, the role of public policy in providing disadvantaged groups more economic power, and on strengthening women’s economic and political opportunities. In an interview, she said where other countries with a wide gender gap face a ‘child penalty’ in which women enter the labour market but drop out upon bearing a child, in India, large numbers of women are married early and migrate at the time of marriage, and often never enter the labour market. 

She called it the ‘marriage penalty’, one that has remained unaddressed by policy.

Excerpts from the interview: 

Every country in the G-20 that India has taken the presidency of has a higher rate of women’s participation in the labour force. But why should Indian women go to work?

Many reports talk about how talent is misallocated when women don’t work especially as education gaps between men and women close.  But the simplest answer one can give to why women should be able to work is simply that women want to work. 

As a democracy, given that surveys of women show they want to work, then we owe it to them to give them full access to the labour market. Certainly that will also be something that's good for growth, but I think rather than thinking about those instrumental reasons for why women should work, we should start with the fact that in survey after survey, what we see is young women, married women, with different preferences on where they want to work or how much, all state that they want to work. 

The reasons for that are clear in the surveys too. This is not to take away from the importance of the care economy and home work, but women who earn a wage are better able to have a say in household matters, less likely to be subjected to domestic violence, more likely to influence their children's outcomes. So we can see why women want to work, not just because they get  satisfaction from doing it, but also because instrumentally it is useful for them.

With regard to the Constitutional right to livelihood, what labour market rights have Indian women been able to demand, and what have been the constraints in accessing those rights?

I'm not a lawyer but my understanding is that women, as much as Dalits or other groups, have a right to equality.  Where I think things are more mixed is in how to get to that equality. The state has sometimes interpreted this in quite a paternalistic way. For instance, in some Indian states women can't work at nights in factories, seen as a way of guaranteeing safety, or a different type of equality. I think perhaps that is something that one could challenge.

Another place where women's rights are less clear is within the household, in the ongoing debate on marital rape, for instance. It’s as if once you've signed up to be married, you've sort of lost the right to thereafter complain about certain things. 

Those are places where neither the Constitution nor the State has really taken a strong view. But largely, I'd say the place where the right to equality as defined by Article 14 comes in conflict with policy is how policymakers interpret what is appropriate in order to keep women safe. 

The gender gap, whether in skills or education or wages, is hardly a uniquely Indian phenomenon, and yet, female labour force participation in India is so much lower than in other comparable nations, in addition to the burden of unpaid work. What policy gaps do you see here? 

Gender gaps in education in India, as those in the world, are falling very fast, making the low women’s labour participation rate more puzzling. Earlier work by  Professor Amartya Sen, for instance, put a lot of weight on female education as a means to achieve equality. But right now we're in a paradoxical situation where women's education is rising, but work force participation is falling. When economists try to explain it, the only way they can is by pointing to the marriage market. 

One feature uniquely different in the data for India relative to other countries is that many Indian women are not entering the labour market. In much of the rest of the world, including countries that have significant gender gaps, like in East Asia, women enter the labour market, but then drop out or do fewer hours of work when they have a child. The world over, that is called the child penalty that women face. 

In India, strikingly, one sees what I would call a marriage penalty.

Especially in rural areas, women move at the time of marriage. So they finish school, and the evidence says parents, especially in north India, are still resistant to delaying a daughter's marriage beyond say 18 or 19 years. They go straight from being educated to being married, often in a different village, and while fertility rates have fallen, it’s still very normal to have their first child within the first year of marriage. 

Policy in India has to function on a different front to address this, to think about how to get women into the labour market after they finish their education, irrespective of whether or not they get married, and that's a very different challenge than in other countries. 

Policymaking, however, is either focused on early childhood issues like the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme,  or focuses on reproductive rights and care. Both are important, but there isn't much thinking about the transition into work. 

In the few examples that exist like skills training programmes, we see that simply setting quotas is not enough—there is a high dropout rate of women for precisely the same reason, marriage. 

What policy needs to grapple with head on is this hard question—how do you make marriage compatible with entering the labour market? How do you get parents willing to have their daughters enter the labour market, even though they may see it as delaying marriage, which they find very costly? 

How do you respond to the government of India’s 2022-23 Economic Survey that says India’s low labour force participation rate of women is a misinterpretation of facts, and that there are measurement issues with regard to the inclusion of unpaid work in GDP?   

It is valuable to acknowledge upfront that there is no single ‘right’ labour force participation measure that surveys should use. Instead, given that unpaid and informal sector work is hard to measure, different surveys use different approaches. The best way to understand measurement issues is to triangulate across different surveys that use different measures. 

For instance, women may describe their principal status as a housewife, or not working. But you may find that their current weekly status is that they’re working, engaged in sporadic work and that could point to underemployment. Another approach is to focus on comparable surveys to look at changes over time, because that at least tells you you're comparing apples to apples. 

One minor point is that the Economic Survey focusses some attention on all-age female labour force labour force participation, when for various reasons, including the recent discussions in India about child labour and child marriage, you probably want to look at labour force participation of women aged 15 years and above. 

On how to measure unpaid work, I think the first concern, a classic concern, is how do you measure the production of household goods as separate from household services. Some particular surveys may try to separate them out, but largely they remain lumped together and that’s one of the reasons why you want to look at this over time. 

For example, a woman collects cow dung, she makes cow dung patties, and later cooks using those as fuel. The dung patties are household goods, but the second part, the cooking with it, is a service that would not be counted. 

The issue is that right now, the PLFS survey combines goods and services. It is certainly useful to think about whether they can be separated. 

In one positive step, NSS completed a time-use survey recently. I think that would be useful to triangulate, to see how much time has been spent on these kinds of goods or activities. That would be one way of trying to get some economic sense of separating goods and services. I don't think it's possible to do it within the survey. 

The idea that data on female labour force participation doesn’t capture domestic services, I think, is neither here nor there. No one doubts the fact that women do a lot of unpaid care work. But that is true the world over. Everywhere, women do a lot more of that work. And so, to say that India has a truly high female labour force participation because Indian women cook for their families—that’s not the issue being debated because, unfortunately, even if they worked outside, they will probably keep cooking for the families. And that is something we see across the world.

Should the data acknowledge a lot of these non-paying jobs when more productive, better quality employment for women is very much lacking?

I disagree that unpaid work is not worth recording. We should certainly consider it as work. This is often where distress employment shows up. Especially in the context of a significant reduction in NREGA allocation in the budget, it's important to recognise that this is the kind of work available to women. So I certainly don't think we should not be identifying it. 

But I agree that a rise in this type of work, possibly at the expense of regular jobs, is concerning. So, it's more that the substitution is concerning, especially in rural India, where it may be suggestive of distress employment—labour force participation going up but because distress employment is going up.  

Tell us about the pandemic, what were the gendered implications of the lockdowns on women workers, incomes and their displacement from the labour market? And why is this important at all to study now?

The image that people have of unskilled workers during the lockdown in India is, of course, that of the huge urban to rural return migration that took place. Along with some colleagues, we have tracked a group of such migrants in two large north Indian states for over a year.

We see two things. The first, which is unsurprising, is that the best way for an unskilled worker to raise their income is to work in urban areas. So, when these individuals, both men and women, went back to rural areas, they saw significant declines in their household income. Six months later, before the Delta wave, a lot of them tried to come back to the cities, and then after the Delta wave once again. 

We started with a sample of workers, both male and female, all working. But the return to the labour market was much higher for men, a higher ability to re-migrate out to urban areas. For women, once they go back, they sort of get caught up in family affairs. paternalistic care, parents’ concern that they’ve seen this terrible experience and didn’t want them to go through that again. Some of it is just family pressures, you know. When we asked them why they didn't go back, many said they got caught up in domestic duties, or didn't get permission or there weren’t enough resources. I think the big hit of the pandemic really seems to be in terms of women's ability to migrate or re-migrate back to urban areas or in urban areas to work.

A sort of silver lining, very much a sort of silver lining, is what happened in rural areas. Even though overall, over the last decade and half, there is a larger decline in men's labour force participation largely driven by rural areas, the women on the other hand, who are not sufficiently educated, don't work on the farms but can't find other jobs, are not allowed to leave the villages, they experienced an uptick in rural work. So rural female labour force participation has actually risen. A lot of it, however, seems to be distress-related work, a lot more work on NREGA, a lot more work in agriculture. 

In sum, the pandemic has really hit women in urban labour markets, where there is no urban NREGA. 

Could it also be that working conditions in general, for men and women, in urban India became worse post-pandemic? And in a paternalistic way, living conditions in the cities were not considered acceptable for women, with more workers sharing rooms or living in dormitories to work. 

I don't know if it became worse. They don't start off by being good at all.

I've always said that the State could just invest a lot, for instance, in working women’s hostels the way it did in the 1960s. That will be a huge boost to women coming to urban areas. 

The two facts that are true is that especially for educated women, migration has to be a critical part to getting employment. For instance, if you look at China, just after 2000, the highest migration rates were among women aged 16 to 21 years, migrating to the coast where all the garment factories were.

In Bangladesh, we've seen a higher women's labour force participation, but Bangladesh is a relatively small country so you could have garment factories quite close to your house. 

In India, what you need is for women in Odisha or in Bihar to be able to safely migrate to the textile factories in the south. A huge constraint in that type of migration is living conditions, concerns of safety of daughters, etc. I think the State could step in and provide migration support, working women's hostels. Those would make a big difference. A few states do provide some migration support, but it is not adequate.

You also studied the emergency COVID relief cash transfer programme that the government undertook in 2020 for poor women. Were they adequate, and do you think they could be reintroduced?  

What we did was simply triangulate across a set of existing data. The positive of the conditional cash transfers during COVID was that it was probably the first time we saw women being targeted by cash transfers. 

Though we have had schemes such as the gas cylinder scheme or others, typically, social protection schemes such as the PDS and NREGA are targeted at households, not at women. This was a big step forward, to choose to target women for this cash transfer. 

We looked at secondary data to understand, among poor women, what the impact was. We asked what fraction of women said they have Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) accounts (they were mandatory for the cash transfer), or dormant accounts. 

It seems that a reasonably high fraction, more among the poorest women, either didn't have a PMJDY account, or  didn't know how to access it or had dormant accounts. So it seems that you know, it's not enough to announce and push out money—you will need to do a lot of last mile work in order to get to the stage where people actually get the money they deserve. What we found worked relatively well in this period was the PDS full ration system, and also NREGA. 

In rural areas, NREGA is actually being made much more complicated to access, especially for women. The newest requirement that workers must have a photograph taken every day for the muster roll, while required to prevent corruption, hits women worse, for they are less likely to have smartphones. Rather than starting new schemes, NREGA is a scheme that seems to actually reach women quite well and it’s perhaps a valuable thing to do especially in rural areas to not make it harder to access for women. 

In urban areas, we should focus on trying to understand what should be the social protection programme for women.

In India, we're hearing a lot of welcoming comments and reports about the gig economy, mainly in relation of course, to the unemployment, credit crisis, but also, a lot of people say that this will improve gender diversity at work. In your opinion, what will gig work do to women to opportunities that they have and the wage gap?

There are some aspects of the gig economy that have always existed in India, like domestic staff.

The main concern about the gig economy the world over is very poor social security or benefits. The gig economy does not offer long term contracts or health insurance, often. How well a gig economy in a country like India does depends also on how well workers’ rights are cared for. People also like the gig economy because they believe that existing labour laws in India are very rigid, there are long-term contracts, provident fund payments to be made by employers, etc. 

For instance, take the expansion of maternity leave. India expanded it to six months, but the problem was that rather than taxing companies and then paying it out to a central fund, companies are made to directly pay for it, which means women have just become much more expensive to employ. And to the extent that they can avoid employing women, their incentives to do that have gone up. 

Is the gig economy going to work for women because it is in an economy where you made formal sector women very expensive to hire?  Maybe that's not necessarily great news in terms of employment benefits. We must think a little bit more carefully about where you want the flexibility of the gig economy.  Professor Claudia Goldin and others have argued that women need more flexibility with regard to work, but this should not also reduce the protections they get. 

In the latest episode of EGC’s podcast ‘Voices In Development’, you said that the early 2000s saw social movements that led to some social protection schemes being implemented. Do you feel that there is space in India for a pan India women's movement to force gendered policy-making?

An example of this movement that is happening in many states is the prohibition movement in states like Bihar that banned alcohol.  Also,  some of these movements are  coming from the SHGs. 

Self help groups have, in some states, proven to be quite strong, they're strongly supported by the State as well. Those are important movements and women care about things like domestic violence, and that's where the focus is.

What support do they need for them to actually push for the right kinds of other freedoms? This is complicated because these freedoms are very tied to household dynamics. If you think about a pan India movement, trying to push women's work, women's employment, at some level, what they’re trying to really push against back against is parental pressures to prioritise marriages, agree to arranged marriages within the caste system, and parental concern that if you don't marry daughters, early, dowries will go up. It’s a hard nut to crack. I think I completely agree that you need diverse movements. 

One valuable policy lever is laws that women can use. For instance, one thing that seems to have worked when it's well-implemented is the expansion of property rights to women. Some of it must be supporting women by giving them access to lawyers, legal systems that can inform them what their rights are, and that might actually help them you know, push back against, what's hard to push back against otherwise—the concern that I won’t do well by my daughter, if I let her study and work because then she won't be able to get married.

(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)