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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

Declining Female Work Participation in India: What does the Periodic Labour Force Survey Tell Us? | Samantroy, Sarkar, Pradhan

Friday 26 March 2021


by Ellina Samantroy*, Kingshuk Sarkar** and Sanjib Pradhan***


The paper is based on highlights from the Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) on female labour force participation. The paper has also used the quinquennial rounds of the Employment and Unemployment Surveys. Women’s participation in the workforce has been continuously declining since 2004-05 though a marginal increase was reported in PLFS 2018-19 with a corresponding increase in self-employment. In this context, the paper tries to understand the employment trends for women in the productive age (15-59 age group). It also tries to probe into women’s nature of employment with a focus on sectoral analysis. The relationship between education and labour market is also explored. The employment protection issues are understood through nature of contracts and access to social security. The paper also engages with women’s participation in domestic duties which has been increasing in India and has a close inter-connection with paid employment .Finally, the paper engages with the issue of statistical invisibility of women’s work thereby focussing on capturing women’s unpaid work through time use surveys. The capturing of women’s work in national accounts will contribute in working towards policy for improving female labour force participation.

Key words: Women’s Workforce participation, domestic duties, capturing women’s work, Time use surveys

The declining female labour force participation has over the last two decades remained a major policy concern in India as reported by the quinquennial rounds of the National Employment and Unemployment Surveys (NSSO). The recent Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) tell us the same story about the decline in female work force participation. There is systemic exclusion of women from economic activities and this matter has been extensively discussed in literature. Even when women are educated, they hardly get an opportunity to participate in the labour force. Some of those who do get the opportunity drop at some point or the other. Labour market dynamics in India has negative biases for women workers. This outcome is interplay of many things including patriarchy, caste, poverty, informality, customs and practices etc. Low female labour force participation rate as revealed by PLFS data and various other data sources is a testimony to this phenomenon.

The World Employment and Social Outlook of the International Labour Organization, 2020 has reported a 27 percentage point gender gap in labour market participation across the world and South Asia recorded a gap of more than 50 percentage points (ILO, 2020). The Indian labour market is also marked with massive inequality and low and declining participation of women. Inspite of proactive educational policies and increased educational attainment for women, there has been a low participation in the labour market. Some of the highlights on the recent PLFS which have now replaced the Employment and Unemployment surveys (EUS) have reported serious labour market challenges particularly for women that need to be addressed adequately.

The Decline in Work Participation and Sectoral Participation 

The work participation rate (WPR) of women in the 15-59 age group (productive age group) had declined between 2004-05 and 2017-18 though it has increased marginally by 1.2 percentage points from 23.8 per cent in 2017-18 to 25.0 per cent in 2018-19. In the year 2004-05,the WPR for women was 44.2 percent which means there was a decline by 19.2 per cent during 2018-19 (Fig 1). The gender gaps in WPR was quite evident with a 48.5 percentage point gap between males and female WPRs in rural areas and 53.5 percentage points in urban areas in 15-59 age group in 2018-19. Also, there has been a change in the nature of employment wherein there was an increase in self-employment for women in rural areas although for urban areas it has almost remained the same. Further, the sectoral shifts in female WPR raise several questions on the nature of employment, employment conditions and access to social security.

Though agriculture occupies a prominent place in the rural economy, there have been shifts in sectoral employment in urban areas. Within the sectoral employment, a 2 digit NIC classification of the share of women workers in top 10 sectors revealed that a larger share of women were mostly engaged in crop and animal production, hunting and related service activities within the agriculture sector (54.4%). Though education remained a prominent sector in urban areas for women, other sectors like manufacturing was mostly in manufacture of wearing apparel, manufacture of tobacco etc (Fig 2) as reported in the PLFS 2018-19. Women are mostly engaged in low paid jobs in these sectors with limited access to social security.

Higher Unemployment Rates for Women with Secondary and Higher Education 

The PLFS 2018-19 reported that work participation rates for women in the age group of 15-59 years was the lowest at 12.1 per cent for those who had received a higher secondary education and those who had a secondary education had a WPR of 15.0 per cent only. In contrast, men in the same age group with higher secondary education had a work participation rate of 55.4 per cent and those with a secondary education had a WPR of 62.2 per cent. Moreover, women who were illiterate had a work participation rate of 35.3 per cent while for men it was 90.8 per cent in the same age group. Rural-urban differentials are also quite prominent with more women in workforce in rural areas being illiterate. Some of the debates around this issue point towards a clear U-shaped association between education and work, with highest levels of participation among illiterate and university educated women (Sudarshan, 2014). The low participation rate of women can also be attributed to lack of adequate skills and concentration of women in gender stereotypical skills which often pushes women to low paying jobs.

Most of the work and occupations, where women find themselves engaged, are undervalued and underpaid. Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and India Human Development Survey (IHDS) show that education and employment have a U-shaped relationship (a fall and subsequent rise in employment with the rise in education levels). Uneducated women have greater possibility to participate in the workforce as informal labour. Work participation drops sharply for women with primary and secondary education and rises only with college-level education. Factors like household income, social background and place of residence also important determinants’ of women’s participation in the workforce.

Declining job contracts: Do women workers have access to social security ?

The increase in self-employment for women often raises a question on whether these women workers will have access to social security and employment security? As the PLFS has reported, there has been a decline in written job contracts for women between 2011-12 and 2018-19 by 2.6 percentage points and in 2018-19, 74.3% women did not have a written job contract while only 25.7 per cent had any written job contract at all. A closer look at the nature of contracts reveals that only 17 per cent women had a contract for at least 3 years. Since there are a large chunk of workers engaged as casual workers the question of job contracts becomes quite problematic due to the temporary nature of their jobs. What is surprising is that even among the regular waged women workers only 33 per cent had a job contract in 2018-19 which had also declined from 35.8 per cent in 2011-12.

In the urban areas, the non-availability of formal jobs, disproportionate long hours and lesser job security in informal jobs leave very little scope for the educated women’s participation in the labour force. In rural areas, not only are women withdrawing from the labour force, they are also being outcompeted by men in the existing jobs particularly in the non-farm sector. Agriculture already has more than desired number of persons. Women are increasingly finding themselves alone to take care of household responsibilities and care activities as men folk are gradually leaving agriculture to look for jobs in the urban informal sector. As a result, women are withdrawing even from farm activities. The burden of domestic work and unpaid care inhibits women’s ability to acquire skills for better jobs, leading to a vicious cycle of women being kept out of the labour force.

Increasing Domestic Duties: Does it affect paid employment?

Mechanization of farm and non-farm activities has also reduced opportunities for work. Also, there is severe under-reporting of women’s work both in urban and rural areas. Though most women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another, much of their work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics, and thus women’s work tends to get under-reported. In India, a substantially high proportion of females report their activity status as ‘attending to domestic duties’ which many a times remains unpaid. In 2011-12, 35.3 per cent of all rural females and 46.1 per cent of all urban females in India were attending to domestic duties, whereas these rates were 29 per cent and 42 per cent in 1993-94 & 2017-18respectively as reported by the ILO Between 2004-05 and 2017-18, there has been an increase in domestic duties participation for rural women in the productive age group (15-59 age group) from 53.3 per cent in 2004-05 to 62.4 per cent in 2017-18. In urban areas though, the domestic duties participation for women in the same age group has only increased marginally between 2004-05 (65.0%) and 2011-12 (65.2%) (ILO,2014 a). Though PLFS 2017-18 had reported a decline in domestic duties to 61.6 per cent among urban females in the 15-59 age group, overall, the domestic duties participation for women in the same age group has increased from 56.5 per cent in 2004-05 to 62.1 per cent in 2017-18.

It is interesting that significant proportion of women usually engaged in domestic duties reported their willingness to accept work if the work was made available at their household premises. In that scenario, they would be in a position to attend domestic duties and work in a much more flexible manner. In a pre-dominantly patriarchal society, women are not in a position to disregard domestic duties imposed on them. Work is almost always in addition to domestic duties. Of the total women usually engaged in domestic duties, 34 per cent in rural areas and about 28 per cent in urban areas reported their willingness to accept work and ‘tailoring’ was the most preferred work in both rural and urban areas. Among the women who were willing to accept work at their household premises, about 95 per cent in both rural and urban areas preferred work on a regular basis. About 74 per cent in rural areas and about 70 per cent in urban areas preferred ‘part time’ work on a regular basis while 21 per cent in rural areas and 25 per cent in urban areas wanted regular ‘full-time’ work (ILO, 2014 b). There is no denying the fact that there is a close inter-relationship between women’s participation in paid employment and unpaid or domestic activities. A recent report of the ILO on Care Work and Care Jobs : For the Future of Decent Work reported that women dedicate on an average 3.2 times more time than men on unpaid work across the world which is 4 hours 25 minutes per day against 1 hour 23 minutes for men (ILO,2018) This over burden of unpaid work and unequal distribution of work has been one of the prominent reasons for women not opting paid employment.

The recently released Time Use Survey (TUS) 2019 estimated that women in the 15-59 age group spend 337 minutes in unpaid work while men spend only 41 minutes in both rural and urban areas. However, the unpaid work was higher for women in rural areas (345 minutes) in comparison to urban areas (318 minutes). Though, men had the lowest participation in unpaid work in urban areas (35 minutes) in the same age group (GoI,2019). This clearly reflects on excessive burden on women on unpaid and care work which needs adequate public policies for redistribution of this work like public provisioning of crèche facilities, community intervention strategies etc apart from strengthening of legal provisions.

Existing Legislations and Policy Framework

Government policies are mostly targeted towards the welfare of organized women workers whereas women in the unorganized sector remain neglected to a great extent. However, it is the unorganized sector that provides livelihood to the largest number of females. Welfare schemes formulated by the State mostly do not reach women in the unorganized sector. Wherever such options exist, they are limited to only documentation and are not enforced in reality in the unorganized and rural sector. For example, severe cuts in expenditure related to the centrally sponsored National Crèche Scheme had led to the closure of crèches across the country (India spend, 2019). Most of the labour laws that exist are applicable for women workers in formal sector only. Women workers in informal sector remains outside the purview of most of the protective legislations. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 entitles a woman working in the organized sector to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. With regard to childcare, the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, has created a provision to provide for crèche facilities in every establishment having 50 or more workers. In all practical purposes, maternity benefit is restricted to only two percent women employees in formal sector. Vast majority of women workers do not have access to it. This happens with respect to other labour laws too, particularly social security and welfare legislations.

Women’s labour force participation and access to decent work are important and necessary elements of an inclusive and sustainable development paradigm. There are many socio-economic barriers which prevent women to participate in labour market in large numbers. Women disproportionately face a range of multiple challenges relating to access to employment, work selection, working conditions, employment security, wage parity and balancing work and family responsibilities. In addition, women are mostly engaged in the informal economy which is exploitative and without formal protection.

Conclusion and Way forward 

It is evident that the debates on declining and low female labour force participation still holds true as there has been no significant increase in female labour force participation in the PLFS 2018-19. The increase in self-employment for women in rural areas is a prominent challenge before policy makers for ensuring employment and social security. The diversified sectoral employment of women and increased concentration in low end jobs need to be examined in detail particularly in the context of skilling programmes and access to skill development. The lack of access to regular employment contracts need to examined afresh with new reforms in labour laws like the introduction of fixed-term employment that regularises employment contracts thereby opening up access to social security as well. Further, the increasing participation of women in domestic duties and unpaid work and choosing part time employment demands a thorough probing into the situation through adequate capturing for all work activities in labour force statistics through time use surveys (24 hour quantitative summaries of paid and unpaid work activities).The National TUS 2019 provides fresh impetus for informing public policy on addressing women’s unpaid work.

Considering these insights and circumstances, a network of enabling eco-system must be developed as part of a comprehensive approach to improving labour market outcomes for women workers. In such a scenario, State has also to play an important role in the creation and maintenance of the support system through provision of improving access to education and training programs, skills development, access to child care, maternity protection, provision of safe and accessible transport, common basic facilities along with facilitation of a growth mechanism that helps in creation of more livelihood opportunities. Policy-makers need to be more concerned about whether women are able to access better jobs or start up a business, and take advantage of new labour market opportunities. There need to be a general awareness at each and every level of policy formulation about the existing gender disparities and subsequent development framework should be developed to address these issues in a holistic manner. A policy framework facilitating and enabling women’s participation need to be developed and contextually customised.


ILO, International Labour Organisation (2020), The World Employment and Social Outlook, Geneva: International Labour Office.

GoI, Government of India(2019), Time Use in India 2019, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, National Statistics Office, Government of India: New Delhi.

ILO (2018) Care Work and Care Jobs: For the Future of Decent Work, Geneva: International Labour Office.

ILO, International Labour Organisation (2014 a) accessed on Oct 14, 2020.

ILO, International Labour Organisation (2014 b), Female Labour Force Participation in India and beyond accessed on Oct 15, 2020.

India Spend (2019) accessed on 14 Oct 2020.

Sudarshan, Ratna M. (2014), Enabling women’s work, International Labour Organization, DWT for South Asia and Country Office for India, New Delhi: ILO.

The views expressed in this article are of the authors and not necessarily that of the organisations they belong to.

(Authors: *Dr. Ellina Samantroy is Faculty at V VGiri National Labour Institute, Noida. She has a PhD in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She works extensively in the field of gender and labour. She can be contacted at ellinasamantroy[a]

**Dr.Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and also works as a labour administrator with the Government of West Bengal. He earlier served as a faculty of the V VGiri National Labour Institute, Noida and NIRD, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at kingshuk71[at]

*** SanjibK Pradhan is Assistant Director of Census Operations (T), Office of the Registrar General, India. Email: psanjib[at]

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