India is on the cusp of surpassing China to become the world’s most populous country, and its economy is among the fastest-growing in the world. But the number of Indian women in the workforce, already among the 20 lowest in the world, has been shrinking for years.
It is not only a problem for women but a growing challenge for India’s own economic ambitions if its estimated 670 million women are left behind as its population expands.
The hope is that India’s fast-growing working-age population will propel its growth for years to come. Yet experts worry this could just as easily become a demographic liability if India fails to ensure its rising population, especially its women, are employed.
Sheela Singh says she cried the day she handed in her resignation. For 16 years, she had been a social worker in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, and she loved the work.
But her family kept telling her she needed to stay at home to take care of her two children. She resisted the pressure for years, but when she found out her daughter was skipping school when she was at work, it felt like she did not have a choice.
“Everyone used to tell me my kids were neglected … it made me feel really bad,” Singh, 39, said.
When she resigned in 2020, Singh was earning more money than her husband, an auto-rickshaw driver whose earnings fluctuated day to day. But nobody suggested he quit.
“His friends used to taunt him that he was living off my salary,” Singh said. “I thought that clearly there was no value in me working so what’s the use?”
Without Singh’s income, her family can no longer afford to live in Mumbai, one of Asia’s most expensive cities. She is now preparing to move back to her village to save money. “But there are no jobs there,” she sighed.
The women’s employment rate peaked at 35 percent in 2004 and fell to about 25 percent in 2022, according to calculations based on official data, said Rosa Abraham, an economist at Azim Premji University.
A national jobs crisis is one reason for the gap, experts say, but entrenched cultural beliefs that see women as the primary caregivers and stigmatise them for working outside the home, as in Singh’s case, is another.
The Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), which uses a more restrictive definition of employment, found that only 10 percent of working-age Indian women in 2022 were either employed or looking for jobs. This means only 39 million women are employed in the workforce compared with 361 million men.
“The working-age population continues to grow but employment hasn’t kept up, which means the proportion of people with jobs will only decline,” said Mahesh Vyas, director at CMIE, adding there has been a severe slowdown in good quality jobs in the last decade.
“This also keeps women out of the workforce as they or their families may see more benefit in taking care of the home or children, instead of toiling in low-paid work.”
The number of working-age Indian women who do not have jobs is staggering – almost twice the entire number of people in the United States.
Experts say this gap could be a huge opportunity if India can find a way to plug it. A 2018 McKinsey report estimated that India could add $552bn to its gross domestic product (GDP) by increasing its female workforce participation rate by 10 percent.