New Delhi – Rakshita Dwivedi loves her work. She gave up a 10-year career as a human resources specialist to set up Recipe Dabba, a website that shows people how to make tasty, no-fuss, nutritious meals at home.
But like a growing number of Indian female professionals, her move was partially driven by necessity. After taking time off to start a family, she found her original career path had been derailed.
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“After my maternity break, I worked for five years but it was clear that the job held no scope for career progression. So, I decided to instead seek happiness chasing my passion. Women are pushed to turn to their passions,” Dwivedi, who calls herself her company’s Chief Eating Officer, told Al Jazeera.
Indian women have been dropping out of the formal workforce for years, despite rapid economic growth. But economists are only just beginning to fully understand the reasons for the trend. A culture that stigmatises women who work, slowing growth in the number of new skilled jobs and agricultural automation are among the main factors.
According to the World Bank, almost 20 million women – a number roughly equivalent to the population of Sri Lanka – dropped out of the workforce between 2005 and 2012. Only 27 percent of adult Indian women had a job, or were actively looking for one, something economists call the labour force participation rate. That compared to 79 percent of men.
And the gap is growing: The percentage of women working in India had dropped to 24 percent of the workforce by 2015-16, according to government figures.
The International Monetary Fund believes the pay-off for India’s economy if more women enter the workforce could be enormous. Its managing director, Christine Lagarde, said last year that increasing the proportion of women in India’s labour force to that of men could boost gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the size of an economy, by as much as 27 percent.
“Corporate jobs haven’t grown and those that remain are not going to women, especially at senior levels,” says Sairee Chahal, founder of SHEROES, an online platform that aims to support women’s careers.
Figures from the Statistics Ministry show the number of new subscribers to India’s Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) fell in the second half of 2018. The figures are used by the government as a proxy measure for formal employment due to the lack of official payroll data. The pace of job creation has not kept up with the broader economy. GDP grew by 6.6 percent in the three months to the end of December year-on-year, the slowest pace in six quarters.
But a closer look at the EPF figures shows men taking up around four times more new jobs than women.
“The absence of a level playing field at the workplace between the genders is ensuring that even experienced women wanting to return to the jobs market after, say maternity breaks, and qualified women are getting pushed into non-formal, non-corporate sector employment options,” Chahal told Al Jazeera.
The persistence of patriarchal attitudes has also been a factor impeding women’s progress in their careers.
Ironically, as men secure higher paying jobs, their female partners encounter societal pressure to abandon their careers, according to the government’s 2017-2018 annual Economic Survey published along with its budget. A lack of institutional child support as family sizes shrink is also keeping women at home, the survey says.
With many more job seekers than jobs available, employers are able to drive a hard bargain with all workers. But analysts say many women come off worse, because employers frequently penalise them for their need to take maternity leave or extra security during their commute.
“Women lose out to equally qualified male candidates on parameters such as greater willingness to clock in late evening hours or the likelihood of seeking maternity leave. Employers’ attitude tends to be as if it is women’s fault that their gender requires maternity leave,” says former human resource specialist Dwivedi.
A recent survey by the WageIndicator Foundation, a Dutch research organisation, found that men in India earned 19 percent more than women in 2018, four percentage points more than in 2017, The International Labour Organization says India has one of the world’s worst gender pay gaps.
The employment picture for women also varies by location.
The proportion of women in the Indian workforce is lower in cities than it is in rural areas, according to government figures. A lot of the low-skilled, menial work in agriculture has traditionally been done by women. As a result, when many of these jobs were eliminated by mechanisation starting around 2004, women suffered disproportionately more than men, according to the World Bank.
That collapse in rural employment drove millions of people to the cities. And many of them have ended up in India’s large informal economy, where they’re employed as casual labourers or in mom-and-pop shops. But analysts say conservative attitudes have kept many of the female internal migrants from seeking work.
“In a traditional society, where women’s work is acceptable only if it takes place in environments perceived as safe, female labour force participation can be expected to depend on the availability of farming jobs,” said Rinku Murgai, lead economist at the World Bank’s New Delhi office.
“In recent years, suitable job opportunities for women have declined precipitously in large villages and small towns,” Murgai told Al Jazeera.
Analysts say a lack of political will to improve opportunities for women has left them at a disadvantage. Some hopes for progress were raised ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections when regional political parties in states such as West Bengal and Odisha decided to allow a larger than usual number of female candidates to run. The main opposition party, the Congress, pledged to reserve 33 percent of government jobs for women if it was voted into office.
But, as Vidya Subrahmaniam, Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Public Policy and Politics says, no party made female employment issues central to their campaigns.
“The election has got vitiated by other issues, especially abusive communal politics that has overtaken livelihood issues. Farm distress, crop price and sugar cane payment have figured marginally but not female workforce participation,” Subrahmaniam told Al Jazeera, “Once we have more women in Parliament, it stands to reason that issues specifically concerning them will get better attention.”
The government and international organisations like the World Bank have been trying to reverse the drop in female employment. One of the main planks of those efforts has been to boost education levels among women.
The World Bank says it has committed more than $2bn to education in India and has been working with the central and state governments on a programme that is changing attitudes towards educating girls.
As it noted in a paper in 2015, many optimists believe that more childcare facilities and an increase in the number of women who attain secondary and tertiary education will reverse the fall. But it also said average schooling has been increasing at about one year per decade. At that rate, it says, it could take half a century before the proportion of women in the workforce increases again.