Low female workforce participation is an intricate challenge of our time
India’s social self-knowledge is being stunted. Politics is hugely important and rightly so. Politics structures society. But the specific form of our politics seems to make it, even more than religion, a kind of opium: more a distraction that gets us high, than a deliberative exercise that confronts reality. There is little patience in understanding the delicate capillaries that nourish society. A perfect example of this was the passing over of what might turn out to be a very consequential debate for India’s future: the low rates of female workforce participation in India.
At a superficial level, the picture is dismal. India, globally, ranks eleventh from the bottom in female workforce participation; after hovering around the 30 per cent mark, the rate fell. Part of the problem seems to be, as most papers on the subject suggest, serious measurement errors. As a society, we are finding it hard to measure, and therefore, to measure up to ourselves. But even then, behind these numbers is a welter of social forces whose impact we need to understand.
Some of these changes were to be expected. Scholars like Jeemol Unni, Geeta Kingdon, Ravinder Kaur and Kunal Sen have analysed the drivers behind this phenomenon. There is the usual income effect: as incomes grow, participation declines. Klasen and Pieters, for example, argue that at lower levels of education, participation is driven by economic necessity; only at very high levels of education and income do pull factors dominate. The education effect females staying in school longer seems to be strong. The literature seems divided over discrimination effects, but even in studies that show some effect, once you control for other variables, the
effects do not seem very large.
But two large trends make the puzzle more intricate. Fertility rates are declining. Female participation in higher education has seen a revolutionary rise. In urban India, female enrolment is now slightly higher than male enrolment. In fact, there is a reverse puzzle waiting to be unpacked: a large proportion of the gains in the gross enrolment ratio in higher education has been the rise in female enrolment; male enrolment was stagnant for almost 20 years. These trends are the basis for the optimism expressed in a recent London School of Economics and Political Science working paper by Surjit Bhalla and Ravinder Kaur, that India’s female participation is poised for a big leap. But even their optimistic take leaves you wondering: gains in female enrolment in higher education are simply not being matched by commensurate increases in labour force participation. Given anecdotal evidence on female performance in education, the best human capital is not coming to the market.