It will take centuries to realize dream of women's economic empowerment if Modi govt fails to address issue

India ranked 140 among 156 countries in Global Gender Gap Index 2021, and only Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked worse at 156 and 153. No other country in South Asia is worse than India

Representative Photo
Representative Photo
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Dr Gyan Pathak

Falling women participation in the workforce in India has been widening the gender gap, not only in the country but in the whole South Asia and Asia region, and we may need centuries to realize the dream of economic empowerment of women if Modi government fails to improve its dismal performance in this regard.

It must also be noted that India ranked 140 among 156 countries in Global Gender Gap Index 2021, and only Afghanistan and Pakistan ranked worse at 156 and 153. No other country in South Asia is worse than India.

One of the major reasons behind this is our failure in economic empowerment of women, which in turn is adversely affected by very low participation of women in the workforce. At this rate, India will need centuries to close its gender gap, since the world’s gender gap is projected to close in 135.6 years.

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap report 2021 had specifically mentioned India as an example where only 22.3 per cent of women were participating in the labour market, translating to a gender gap of 72 per cent.

According to Modi government, the female workforce participation rate was 30 per cent in 2019-20 but according to the World Bank, it had fallen to 20.3 per cent in 2019 from more than 26 per cent in 2005.

The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutting down of economic activities has only worsened the situation. Now the figures stand at 15.5 and 16.1 per cent during the first two quarters of 2020-21.

The World Bank has estimated India as one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. Less than only a third of women – 15 years or older – are working or actively looking for a job. Further, most employed women in India are in low-skilled work, such as at farms or as factory labour and domestic help.

“In Asia, the average male labour force participation rate is 74.7 per cent compared to 52.6 per cent of female participation. The disparity is especially considerable in South Asia, with a percentage of 78.9 per cent for men and only 39.9 per cent for women,” says the latest policy brief of ADBI on “Women’s Economic Empowerment in Asia”.

“Three prominent forms of gender inequality are witnessed in the workplace: unequal labour participation, the gender pay gap, and under representation of women executives in management position,” it says, adding, “Radical causes behind these inequalities included unbalanced burden of unpaid care and domestic work, which limits women’s participation in economic activities, gender discrimination in the workplace due to the lack of a reporting and accountability system, and different cultural mentality.”

When it comes to forms of employment, women’s employment share in the informal sector is much higher than men over the world. However, in ASEAN countries, an estimated 67 per cent among all employed women are working in the informal sector that provides limited social protection.

There is also gender bias in segmentation of jobs for those in formal employment. The ADBI brief specifically mentions India among other countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam in this regard. In India, women mainly work in education, manufacturing, public administration and defense, human health and social work activities, while all other sectors are heavily under-represented.

Gender pay gap exists over the world. Despite some progress in recent years, in 2019, the wage gap was still approximately 37 per cent, while the income gap remained close at 51 per cent. In other words, when it comes to wages for a similar position, women make only 37 per cent of what men get paid and, in terms of total income including both wage and non-wage, women make only 51 per cent of what men make. Overall pay gap is in favour of men, says ILO.


Women remain under-represented in managerial and legislative positions, possibly due to culture and tradition where they customarily have a less commanding voice. While women are enlarging their voice in decision making, parity is still far from being reached.

The world average share of firms with a female top manager is less than 20 per cent. South Asia showed poorer performance both in terms of top management and business ownership, except for India due to an enacted law that requires female presence in top management of the private sector.

In overall female representation in the region measured by the percentage of women in management positions, women make up only 24 per cent of middle and senior managers in the private sector, and only 20 per cent of seats in Parliament are occupied by women. The ILO’s enterprise survey on women’s share of management indicated that 35 per cent of all enterprises have only 1 – 10 per cent of female top executives in their Companies.

Although women’s educational attainment can increase the low employment rate of women to some extent, it is not necessary that higher education itself can close the gender gap in the labour market. ILO data reveals that 41.5 per cent of college-educated adult women are unemployed or not in labour force, compared with 17.2 per cent for men. One of the factors that explains this situation is the role of childcare on women’s participation in the labour market.

An ILO report showed the evidence of “motherhood pay gap” between mothers and non-mothers. Motherhood can cause labour market interruption or reduction of women’s working time or bring in family-friendly jobs, which usually offer less pay. The reduction of working time can also jeopardize promotion decisions for mothers.

The consequence of this unequal care work on female labour participation is referred to as the “motherhood penalty”. This motherhood penalty does not only reflect lower pay for women but also a bigger gender gap in employment.

There are also other factors like social bias, unequal care and house work, and unfavourable conditions in business and workplace, due to which women are not able to utilize their full potential. There are clearly miles to go for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace in the absence of reporting and accountability system.

(IPA Service)

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