Caution: Women at work

“No, Mamma has to cook and Papa has to work on the computer,” corrected my daughter’s friend, to bring about the proper stereotype in their Mummy-Papa role play.  So dutifully the father typed away frantically on a pretend laptop while the mother fretted away in the kitchen trying to get dinner ready.

I used to think that times are changing as a greater percent of women are entering the workforce, and by the time today’s kids grow up, the reality of women and work would be different.  However, a friend who researches women and work pointed out that women’s participation in the workforce in India has actually been declining.

At first I assumed that this was a purely rural phenomenon, a result of no employment options for women.  But when I dug up national level data and research, I realized that the trend is much stronger than I originally suspected.

The Facts

The labor force participation rate (LFPR) of rural women has been declining from 31% in 1983 to 24% in 2012, and roughly stable for urban women at ~18%.  These numbers are for “principal status”.  Principal status is defined as the main activity undertaken by an individual for more than six months in the year.  If we take into account subsidiary status (activities taken up for less than six months), the rural LFPR dropped from 37% to 30% and the urban one from 21% to 20%.

In rural areas there is actually a decline in absolute number of women in the workforce over the last decade.  In urban areas, while there has been an increase in absolute numbers, the growth rate has barely kept pace with increase in population of women, leading to a more or less flat LFPR across the years.

Here are the pertinent numbers:

Women work 1

The LFPR% chart below shows a long term trend of withdrawal of women from the workforce, with a small exception of an upward trend in the last two years in urban areas.

Women Work 2

The ‘U’ curve

Economic and sociological theory holds that as the income of households at the bottom of the pyramid increases, women withdraw from the workforce to focus almost entirely on domestic activities.  At even higher income levels, households produce highly educated women who participate in the workforce, competing with men for similar kinds of jobs. This results in a ‘U’ shaped labor force participation curve mapped against income deciles.

The ‘U’ shape more or less holds for urban India, although two noticeable changes have taken place in the last decade and half.

Urban Female LFPR by MPCE

Urban Female LFPR by MPCE

First, the overall U sits lower along the y-axis due to overall reduction in labor participation in the last decade.  Second, the upper income (right) portion of the curve now rises lower as more and more high income women are withdrawing from the workforce. Among urban high-income households, it is unclear to me why there is a discreet jump from ~30% LFPR in the 80s and 90s, to ~15% in 2000s rather than a spread, as in the case of urban poor.

Rural Female LFPR by MPCE percentile

Rural Female LFPR by MPCE percentile

In rural areas, the ‘U’ curve was never in place in India due to no economic opportunities for educated women.  This sad reality hasn’t really changed in recent years.  As in urban areas, the drop in labor participation of urban women is higher in the higher income brackets.

‘Producing’ status

Data shows that this withdrawal from workforce cuts across all age groups, and is not limited to typical child-bearing age in rural or urban India.

And, the reverse also holds true: that is, female participation in domestic activities as their primary occupation has been increasing, after adjusting for increase in enrollment in institutes of higher education.

So what value does a household get out of withdrawal of women from the workforce?

The act of withdrawal of women from wage-earning work signals financial security.  Secondly, the women’s focus on domestic affairs enables greater investment in children’s education and household wellbeing. Thus instead of producing income, women focused on domestic work produce ‘status’.

In 1983, 61% of urban women graduates participated in the workforce, compared to only 26% now.  Education is widely regarded as one of the key tools of empowerment of women to enhance their autonomy and agency.  But if the women are focusing entirely on domestic affairs and the production of household status, how does education matter?

According to research cited in this paper, “Education among women does not necessarily increase their ‘autonomy’ in substantive ways, rather it may only lead to modernization and internalization of patriarchal norms”.  In fact, “ ‘Schooling seems to inculcate discipline, self-restraint, patience, routine and obedience to authority among girls.’”

More marginalized work

In the agriculture sector, which is the main employer of rural women, we find that women who work are withdrawing from agriculture as a primary activity and focusing on home-based activities such as preparation of seeds, cleaning, storing, etc. or on livestock. And those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are engaging in more work as ‘casual labor’.  So not only are women withdrawing from work, the ones who do engage in production activities are engaging in marginal activities rather than core activities.

What does this add up to?

So, we have fewer and fewer % of women working overall.  And in rural areas, those who are working are increasingly working in supplemental activities or as casual labor.  In urban areas, 85% of educated women are choosing to invest their effort exclusively on household activities.

Whether this reflects their actual preference or is a reflection of societal pressure or lack of spousal support in household matters, I can’t say.

But what I can say is that the stereotype scenario played by young girls the world over is more prevalent in India now than it was 20 years ago.

[Note: LFPR data and charts cited in this article are reproduced from “Missing Labour or Consistent ‘De-Feminisation’?” by Vinoj Abraham, Economic & Political Weekly, August 3, 2013. Agriculture related information is from NSSO reports.

A version of this article also appeared at]

This entry was posted in Research studies and surveys, Women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Caution: Women at work

  1. yayaver says:

    I am not still clear on the reason of withdrawal of women from the workforce in rural areas. Please relate this rise of SHG movement in India.

  2. Richa says:

    According to these studies, in patriarchal societies, women staying at home is a symbol of status, a symbol that the male members earn sufficient income: as in “I don’t need to send my wife/bahu to work and earn an income”. So the women focus entirely on home-based activities which are socially acceptable in upwardly mobile households. These activities include housework, but also taking care of animals, fetching water, etc…

    • Do you think this has a cascading effect on domestic workers? That is, now that I can stay home and cook, I no longer need my cook and the cleaning lady can come once every two days instead of every day.

      • Richa says:

        Well I don’t know. This is not an area I have studied but am generally interested in. But I have not seen any middle class women let go of their maids and cooks once they decide to stay at home.

  3. yayaver says:

    Hmm.. thanks. I forget to think from this angle 🙂

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