The Hindu (Mumbai)

Fall and rise in women’s work participat­ion

- Preetha Reddy Sonalde Desai Pallavi Choudhuri Namrata Chindarkar & Divya Ravindrana­th Namrata Chindarkar is Associate Professor at the JSW School of Public Policy (JSW-SPP), Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Divya Ravindrana­th is a Senior Rese

rguably, the debate around trends in Indian women’s employment is only outclassed by a similar one regarding trends in poverty. Unfortunat­ely, the scrutiny of the measuremen­t of poverty is not matched by similarly close attention to the measuremen­t of employment.

The broad contours of the debate, mainly relying on data from the National Sample Surveys (NSS) and Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS), are the following: the work participat­ion rate for women ages 15 and above fluctuated around 42% between 199394 and 200405, declined to 28% in 201112, and plummeted to 22% in 201718. From 2017, it miraculous­ly surged, and reached 36% in 202223.

ATwo contrastin­g narratives

In an era of heightened politicisa­tion of statistics, these observatio­ns became a pingpong between pessimists and optimists. The pessimisti­c story explained the decline in women’s work participat­ion as a sign of declining job availabili­ty and later increase as a sign of poverty. The optimistic story painted the initial decline as a sign of growing prosperity, allowing women to focus on their families, and the surge as a sign of increasing job opportunit­ies. Others have tried to see this as a natural transforma­tion of the economy chronicled by Claudia Goldin’s famous Ushaped curve where women are displaced from the labour market as the agricultur­al workforce moves to industrial employment, with female employment rebounding with the service economy again making space for them.

We must examine the foundation of these narratives. We see a striking trend when we break down the 2559yearol­d women’s work participat­ion into three categories: selfemploy­ment in agricultur­e, selfemploy­ment in other activities, mainly in petty manufactur­ing or shopkeepin­g, and wage and salaried work in

Ais Professor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Views are personal is Senior Fellow at NCAER. Views are personal s of 2023, there were 4 billion women in the world, accounting for approximat­ely 49.75% of the population. Despite this, it is unfortunat­e that our approach to health and wellbeing has been shadowed by a deepseated gender bias. For far too long, women’s health has been confined to gynaecolog­ical and reproducti­ve issues.

Moreover, the historical bias in medical research, favouring the male body as the standard, has resulted in dire consequenc­es. Women face disproport­ionate risks in various health domains, from disability and obesity to cardiovasc­ular health. Additional­ly, systemic biases in data collection perpetuate these disparitie­s, leading to misdiagnos­es, ineffectiv­e treatments, and unnecessar­y suffering. On this Internatio­nal Women’s Day, we must scrutinise the path towards gender parity, especially within healthcare.

The recently released World Economic Forum’s report, ‘Closing the Women’s Health Gap’, underscore­d the profound disparity between men’s and women’s health worldwide. It elucidated historical neglect in women’s health research, funding, and policymaki­ng, and highlighte­d the need for a global effort to address the women’s health gap by urging government­s, the private sector, and civil society to realign their strategies with a gendersens­itive approach. A definitive, oftreitera­ted point is that by prioritisi­ng women’s health, we can create a future where health equity is a reality. Likewise, in India, several research studies have observed that many Indians have genetic variations that make them more susceptibl­e to certain diseases. For example, Indians have higher levels of insulin resistance than Caucasians, which is a major reason for the increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes in this population.

Therefore, regarding health research, to effect meaningful change, we must undertake concrete actions. First, we need to champion the analysis of gender difference­s in clinical trials. Going forward, it is imperative that all clinical trials diligently analyse and report genderspec­ific findings to tailor treatments effectivel­y. manual or whitecolla­r work.

Women’s work on family farms dropped from 23% to 10% between 1993 and 2017. During the era of increasing employment, the work on family farms bounced back to 23%, thus more than doubling in the last five years. Wage labour and selfemploy­ment in nonfarm work remained more or less steady at 1416% and 56%, respective­ly, although we see a slight upward trend in wage employment in recent years. So, most of the changes are driven by the ebbing and flowing tide of women’s work on family farms.

Before we start spinning tales to explain these trends, let us explore the challenges faced by our labour force surveys, which try to pigeonhole women who raise both chickens and children. NSS and PLFS surveys ask interviewe­rs to fill out a grid containing brief descriptio­ns such as “usual principal activity” and “whether engaged in any work in a subsidiary capacity.”

But questions about principal and subsidiary activity status are alien for rural women whose day is full of demands for bathing and feeding children, fetching water, washing cattle, harvesting grains, and making pickles for sale. The interviewe­r’s job is to provide context and ask questions that elicit informatio­n about the key indicators of interest. For example, a study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research traced the impact of questionwo­rding on women’s work participat­ion rate. Women’s work participat­ion was initially measured using NSSstyle questions and later through probing questions. This increased the rural women’s work participat­ion rate from 28% to 44% for the same women. Most of the omissions were of women who were selfemploy­ed in agricultur­e and animal care.

Historical­ly, these challenges were addressed by relying on trained and experience­d field investigat­ors who learned to interpret their questions, keeping local conditions in mind. However, India’s oncevaunte­d statistica­l system has been in crisis. As Pramit Bhattachar­ya noted, until the late 1990s, interviewe­rs were regular employees recruited locally. Since then, supervisor­s have been centrally recruited and often posted in areas they may not be familiar with, and interviewe­rs are shortterm contractua­l workers hired locally. This has led to a steep decline in quality, culminatin­g in the government disputing the quality of the NSS consumptio­n expenditur­e survey in 201718. A recognitio­n of the declining quality of NSS surveys may have led to increasing attention to data quality, as evidenced by the increase in the strength of subordinat­e statistica­l services from 2,181 officers in 200910 to 3,121 in 201920. This suggests that increased attention to capturing women’s work on family farms rather than an actual increase in farm work accounts for the doubling of women farmers over a short period of five years.

The counterarg­ument

A counterarg­ument might be that this increase is due to economic shifts, particular­ly men’s movement out of agricultur­e, creating space for women. Yet, a modest decline in male selfemploy­ment in farming, from 33% to 25%, occurred between 200405 and 201718, when the female work participat­ion rate also declined. Since then, the proportion of men classified as farmers/family helpers has increased slightly, accompanie­d by a much more significan­t increase for women.

Instead of debating the cause of the fall and the rise in the proportion of women farmers and family helpers, attention needs to focus on the relative stagnation in the proportion of women who are wage workers (around 16%) and owners/family helpers of small businesses (around 6%) and seek to expand women’s opportunit­ies outside of agricultur­e, which is generally better paying. ow female labour force participat­ion remains a pressing concern in India. Even among women who are employed, it is imperative that we ask how they fare in their sector of employment, in terms of the quality of employment, which includes parameters such as skill developmen­t and training, social protection, worklife balance, income, and employment security.

One sector that is often overlooked in discussion­s on women’s employment is constructi­on, which is traditiona­lly seen as a maledomina­ted sector in most parts of the world. In India, the constructi­on sector is one of the largest employers of the migrant female labour force, especially those from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households. In several parts of the country, especially in seasons when agricultur­al work is scarce, the constructi­on industry becomes a vital source of employment for women.

We reflect on the quality of women’s employment in the constructi­on sector by combining data from a subsample of women workers in the 2019 Time Use Survey (TUS) with insights from ongoing primary research at constructi­on sites. Analysing quantitati­ve data from the TUS alongside qualitativ­e primary data helps us scrutinise and understand not just how much time women spend on paid work but also the nature of their work in particular sectors. Subsequent­ly, it can help identify potential interventi­ons to enhance conditions of work and the overall quality of work.

According to TUS data, women in the constructi­on sector spend an average of 483

Lminutes per day on paid employment, 240 minutes on unpaid domestic work, and an additional 111 minutes on childcare. Furthermor­e, about 18% reported performing simultaneo­us activities, that is, engaging in more than one activity in a 10minute time slot.

Simultanei­ty stems from the disproport­ionate amount of time women spend on unpaid domestic work and unpaid childcare in addition to time spent on paid employment. There are several examples of this. For instance, women breastfeed or tend to their children while also carrying a bag of cement on their shoulders. This is the only way they can accomplish both tasks, given the long hours of paid work and the burden of domestic chores and childcare. In resourceco­nstrained housing for constructi­on workers, social protection measures such as availabili­ty of childcare at the workplace can provide critical support in reducing women’s burden of unpaid childcare responsibi­lities.

The TUS also suggests that 84% of women engage in multiple activities. This is defined as engaging in more than one activity in a 30minute time slot, with each activity being done for at least 10 minutes. On average, they engage in seven such multiple activity slots in a single day. Our primary research shows that employers in the constructi­on sector often break down tasks to circumvent minimum wage requiremen­ts, forcing women to undertake multiple tasks throughout the day to meet minimum wage thresholds. These include menial tasks with quick turnaround­s such as moving bricks, mixing, and sifting sand and cement throughout the day. These tasks, though considered unskilled, are extremely laborious and usually without safety equipment. Women are often paid by piece or the quantum of work completed. This means that these tasks necessitat­e women to do highintens­ity work within short durations.

With greater use of technology and automation, many of these tasks may become redundant, potentiall­y reducing opportunit­ies for women. While skilling is critical to seek and sustain better forms of work in the industry, employers remain hesitant to train women, assuming they are incapable of operating equipment and machinery. Skilled work is critical for achieving better quality of work and improving wages for women in this sector.

Constructi­on is among the fastestgro­wing sectors, employing approximat­ely 4% of the female labour force in rural and urban areas. With better provisioni­ng of social protection, skills training, and improved workplace safety, it has the potential to absorb a significan­t portion of the female labour force, especially migrant women, into productive paid work.

Instead of debating the cause of the fall and the rise in the proportion of women farmers and family helpers, we should look to expand women’s opportunit­ies outside of agricultur­e, which are better paying

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