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'Exploring the freedom of women in markets: Evidence from Female Labor Force Participation Rate'

India has witnessed unprecedented economic growth and development in almost all spheres. Yet, it has been unable to provide women the freedom to participate in the labor market. Despite rising literacy and declining fertility rate, the female labor force participation rate has declined since the mid 20th century. A complex web of social, economic and cultural factors seem to be at play, resulting in the paradoxical phenomenon. Here's why women are yet to be emancipated from the labor market even after 75 years of independence-


A) Boserup’s theory on women development

The biased and prejudiced treatment meted out to women in the labor market since post-colonial times first became perceptible in Boserup’s pioneering work, ‘Woman's Role in Economic Development.' It shows that women have been treated as intrinsically inferior workers. In the agricultural sector, the division of work is skewed. Where men use leading farming equipment like plow while women are restricted to manual labor with no tools or implements. Similarly, industrial work and work in factories have been assigned to men while women have been relegated to 'feminine professions' (teaching, secretarial work, spinning).

Such unjust divisions stem from the belief that women are the 'weaker sex,' are not suitable for mentally or physically demanding jobs, and are solely responsible for domestic duties and household care. These beliefs result in obligatory policies like maternity leave (which sends a signal in society that household chores are maternal responsibilities instead of mutual ), not being allowed to work at night and flexible working hours. It also entrenches the social norm of not providing education or job training and preparing them for household duties which again makes men more desirable for industrial and tertiary firms to hire. (Boserup, 2007)

B) The decline of female labor force participation rate in India

Klugman et al. (2014) demonstrate that women's involvement in the labor market not only guarantees gender equality and fundamental rights but is also an essential driver of robust, shared growth and development of a nation. In this context, the declining female labor force participation rate has become a matter of concern and has gained considerable attention from researchers and policymakers alike. According to the International Labor Organisation, the Labor force participation rate is the proportion of the female population aged 15 and older that is economically active: all people who supply labor for goods and services during a specified period. The female labor force participation has declined from 32.5 % in 1987 to 22.8 % in 2017 and it is projected that the female labor force participation will continue to decrease in the years to come.

C) The supply-side factors

From an economic lens, both demand and supply variables are constraining the female labor force participation. From the supply side, it is the entrenched patriarchal norms of treating women working outside as a taboo and traditions reinforcing domestic household care as the prime responsibility of a woman.. These values structurally deprive women of accessing economic opportunities throughout their life. The debilitating condition of security provided to women in public spaces also adds to safety concerns and acts as a barrier for women to step outside.

Women are allowed to work only when there is financial distress in the family or the household income is low or for white-collar governmental jobs which are considered venerable and thus, receive family support. (Das et al., 2015). Eswaran et al. (2013) encountered a phenomenon “Sanskritisation” where the family belonging to the lower classes of the society try to emulate the affluent sections of the society in a bid to elevate their status in society, playing out in the female labor force market as well where women withdraw from the labor force once a family’s household income improves. Sorsa et al. (2015) also found that women’s participation was significantly and indirectly related to the household head’s income. Other things remaining constant, it implies that when the household head’s income or education increases, the female labor force participation rate decreases.

D) The demand-side factors

From the demand side, occupational segregation, non-conducive work environment, detrimental legislations like maternity leave, wage gap lower demand for the female labor force. Women have been relegated to ‘feminine professions’ like nursing, teaching, etc. which are an extension of the domestic household work they undertake at home. Thus , the social norms also determine the jobs that are offered to women in the market. Legislations like maternity leave, banning women to work at night in the manufacturing sector further disincentivize the firms to hire women. Besides, seemingly innocuous ‘maternity leave’ masks patriarchy working at a deeper level where raising and taking care of a child is the responsibility of the mother, not the parents. Therefore, these legislations meant to serve women paradoxically set benchmarks as to what should be considered a woman’s work. Having discussed the negative influences, there might be one positive factor instrumental in the decline of female labor force participation i.e. increased participation of women in education at secondary and tertiary levels.(World Bank Group, 2017)

E) Measures required

There is a pressing need to de-link the idea of household care from women’s prime responsibility. The state can play an active role in dismantling the historical gender roles via policies like ‘parental leaves’ instead of maternity leaves and uplifting the ban on women to work in certain sectors. It also needs to take stringent actions in providing security to women like providing social security directly to employees instead of employers so that it can cover women in the informal sector as well and providing gendered compartments in public transports. (Chapman et al., 2014) Industries and firms can also take the initiative to foster a gender-inclusive environment by regularly organizing sensitization workshops and eliminating the gender-based wage gap.



It’s clear that social expenditure on education and health aren’t enough. Encouraging factors like higher education and declining fertility rate do not give a complete picture of the autonomy and liberty of women in the labor market. Thus, policy measures specifically targeted at countering the negative forces by a profound analysis can go a long way in granting true emancipation to women.


Key Takeaways-

1) India has seen a steep decline in its female labor force participation rate despite unprecedented economic growth since the middle of the 20th century even though the participation of women in education has been rising and the total fertility rate has been declining rapidly.

2) Rigid social norms that restrict the mobility of women in the labor force as ‘status symbol’ and culture reinforcing domestic household care work as the prime responsibility of women curtail the supply of female in the labor force while occupational segregation, non-conducive work environment, detrimental legislations like ‘maternity leave’ and wage gap lower demand for the female labor force.

3) There is a need to revamp the social and cultural norms surrounding women and their role in the society and doing away with the gendered roles and occupational segregation by active involvement of both public and private sector.

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