What is keeping women from working in India?

Women’s labour force participation has never looked promising, but the decline in numbers in the last two decades have been alarming. One of the major reasons for this drop is the rise in the number of women in formal education, which in turn delays their entry into the job market.

But the real travesty is that the few who do enter the labour force are faced with gendered distribution of jobs, which is mostly concentrated in low productivity industries.

Women’s careers may be peaking in the world of Indian films, but the narrative in real life tells a different story.  Only 27% are in the labour force – down from 35% in 2004. And this fall is even sharper when seen from the lens of women in the age group of 15-24 years. Almost half are not in education, employment or training, compared to just 8% of young men.

This is critical in the larger context of declining female labour force participation rates (FLPRs).


According to a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), while 2.4 million women fell off the employment map, jobs for men increased by 0.9 million in the same time period. This meant that while women were quitting jobs, more men were joining the workforce.

Why is this happening? Why are women withdrawing from the world of work?


  1. Non-economic, social and cultural factors

    A significant number of women need to take permission from male family members to work or even learn skills that will make them employable. Social norms about appropriate behaviour for women and the enforcement of these by family dictate their ability to seek jobs.

This can largely be attributed to dominant patriarchal attitudes, which infuses a sense of shame in the idea of women stepping out of their homes for jobs. 

This makes it challenging for many college students – who are in what is broadly and colloquially termed the ‘marriageable age’ in India – to look for work. These women generally don’t have an agency while negotiating this matter at home, and as is often the case, the final decision is almost always anchored by their family members.

Highly educated women are more likely to marry more educated men with high incomes, which inhibits their labour force participation.

The same holds true for decisions taken after marriage – what kind of job they can take up, the kind of working hours they can commit to, or whether they can work at all – solely depends on the future husband and his family. This makes it difficult for women to commit to jobs or even engage with employers during college placements.

Additionally, for a lot of women, childbirth sounds the end of their work lives. The 2016 legislation which entitles a woman to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave should have made the rejoining process easier for women. But a study by TeamLease estimates that this increased cost for companies may have discouraged them from hiring women in the first place. This keeps many well-educated and employable women out of the workforce.

2. Lack of infrastructure

Even when women are ‘allowed’ to work, there are several conditions that must be met. Is the office close to where they live? Will it provide crèches for their children? Will safe, frequent, and last-mile public transport options be available? 

Due to dire shortage of infrastructure that would enable women’s participation in the workplace, women end up limiting their job options.

Author: thelearnerbyquest

Quest Alliance's space for reflection on the education sector

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