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Why are Indian women being excluded from the workforce?

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Women in India face major disadvantages in getting and retaining decent quality jobs, but some of the country’s biggest companies are determined to change this.


Although India has made considerable progress towards creating an inclusive economy with job opportunities and career equality for women in the last few decades, the Covid-19 pandemic has jeopardised the ability of millions of women to stay in the workforce and progress.

Although the pandemic undoubtedly impacted millions of Indians, unemployment data shows that women are disproportionately feeling the brunt of job losses.

During the pandemic the female workforce participation rate – already among the world’s lowest – fell further.

A Ministry of Statistics report said the female labour participation rate in India fell to 16.1 per cent during the July-September 2020 quarter, the lowest among the world’s major economies.

The percentage of women in the labour force actually dropped to a record low of 15.5 per cent during the April-June 2020 quarter, when India imposed a strict lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Less than a third of women – defined in the report as 15 or older – are working or actively looking for a job.

Photograph: iStock/triloks

According to the World Bank, women comprised 20.3 per cent of India’s total labour force in 2020, down from 30 per cent in 1990.

“Covid-19 has further aggravated the situation, as it has pushed a lot of women, both in the informal and formal sectors, out of work,” says Jaya Dhindaw, strategy head at the World Resources Institute (India). “Women’s participation in the workforce is below 20 per cent after the pandemic.”

Women first to lose jobs during the downturn
Unfortunately, in times of distress or economic downturn, women bear the brunt, and are often the first to find their jobs axed or their salaries cut.

Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, which is perhaps one of the best indicators of employment losses, shows a persistent drop in the employment rate for urban women. Before the pandemic, 7.5 per cent of women in urban areas were employed, but this fell to five per cent in April 2020 and has barely recovered since. Data from February 2021 shows an employment rate of 5.4 per cent for urban women.

A recent study by consulting and analytics firm Economix Consulting Group found that as many as 60 per cent of Indian women in part-time employment and 37 per cent who were full-time employees faced pay cuts during the pandemic.

The rate at which employment and jobs have returned as the economy has re-opened also reveals a vast gender-based difference. In fact, women are continuing to lose jobs while men’s employment has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps the biggest shock prediction from the report is that two million more women are likely to suffer job loss in 2021.

In March, LinkedIn’s Opportunity Index 2021 report found that four in five women (85 per cent) in India have been passed over for raises and promotions at work in favour of a male colleague, compared to an average of 60 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region.

LinkedIn’s findings also show that nine in 10 (89 per cent) of women state they were negatively impacted by Covid-19.

Unpaid caring responsibilities
The pandemic has also amplified the unequal burden of unpaid care – shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare and looking after elderly parents in the household – which is disproportionately carried by women. Caring responsibilities have already caused more women than men to exit the workforce.

Photograph: iStock/triloks

More than seven in 10 working women and working mothers feel that managing family and home responsibilities often affects their career development, the LinkedIn report shows. About two-thirds of working women said they have faced discrimination at work because of family and household responsibilities.

A working paper from Azim Premji University, Down and Out? The Gendered Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on India’s Labour Market, reveals that women in India were seven times more likely to lose work during the national lockdown and 11 times more likely to not return to work after a job loss.

Most of these women reportedly themselves decided to give up their jobs during the pandemic due to increased demand for unpaid care, including supporting children and spouses studying and working from home.

“The society will pay a heavy price if the pandemic pushes more women out of the workforce, families deeper into debt and poverty and more girls drop out of school triggering possibly more child marriages,” said Swetha Totapally, partner at consulting firm Dalberg Advisors. Totapally has authored a report that found an increase in women’s household responsibilities will make it difficult for them to re-enter the workforce, leading to economic consequences that may outlast the pandemic.

Another survey in June by LinkedIn said: “India’s working women are approximately two times more likely to be worried about the availability of jobs, their professional network and time devoted to job-seeking than working men today. This uneven impact has also bruised the financial stability of working women as about one in four (23 per cent) female professionals are concerned about growing expenses or debt, in contrast with just about one in 10 (13 per cent) working men.”

Given the damage that an extended unemployment gap could have for women and the economy overall, experts say stakeholders must take bold and targeted action to get women into work.

Involve women in decision-making
To change the present situation, women must have much greater involvement in decision-making, said Priyanka Chaturvedi, deputy leader of Shiv Sena and Rajya Sabha member.

“The first step towards empowering women would be recognising their tangible ordeals,” said Tanya Singh, director of IPE Global Limited. “Too many of them remain anecdotal for the lack of academic or policy intervention to gauge their real statistical worth.”

Singh stressed the important role the government’s existing skill-building programmes should be playing in getting women into work, such as the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana scheme (PMKVY), which provides job skills training for young people.

“The scheme must be entrenched uniformly across urban spheres, identifying capable and determined women and cultivating in them the entrepreneurial appetite to create their jobs and responsibilities as the economy undergoes repair,” she said

Many labour force commentators also warn the growth of automation is shifting the mix of jobs and skills that will be required in the future, meaning there needs to be a much greater emphasis on reskilling women so they are able seize the job opportunities this presents.

“Employers can also take measures to ensure that women who have left the workforce during the pandemic are offered opportunities to make up for lost time,” said Preeti Srivastava, an HR manager, who quit her job in a software firm in Delhi during the pandemic.

Female-friendly hiring practices
Although Indian women face major hurdles in gaining employment, the good news is that some companies are taking to steps to ensure women are recruited for high quality jobs.

For instance, Taxi app company Ola has announced plans for the world’s largest all-woman factory. In a blogpost, Ola co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal said the company welcomed the first batch of female workers in September 2021 and “at full capacity, Futurefactory will employ over 10,000 women, making it the world’s largest women-only factory and the only all-women automotive manufacturing facility globally”.

The move is the first in a series of initiatives that Ola is undertaking to establish a more inclusive workforce across all its divisions. “Enabling women with economic opportunities improves not just their lives but that of their families and indeed the whole community. In fact, studies show that just providing women parity in the labour workforce can grow India’s GDP by 27 per cent,” the Ola Electric CEO said on the macroeconomic prospects of the move.

Information technology (IT) services company Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) also announced one of its largest recruitment drives for hiring women. The TCS ‘Rebegin’ project is aimed at experienced and aspiring women who wish to jump-start their professional journey and make ‘The Big Move’.

Other IT players – like Infosys, Wipro, HCL Technologies, Dell, Accenture and IBM – have stated they will be hiring more women candidates. Infosys says it wants women to comprise 45 per cent of its workforce; at present it is 38.6 per cent (for the financial year 2021). At Wipro, women constitute 35.7 per cent of the workforce.

And some companies like Maersk have launched initiatives designed to attract women who want to work remotely. The world’s largest container shipping company rolled out a programme this year to hire women for entry level jobs – in areas ranging from software to finance – from small towns in India without the need for them to relocate elsewhere, even after the pandemic subsides.

On a global scale, India has been topping the charts as many companies, including Hindustan Unilever Limited and Kirloskar, have been employing all-woman teams for years.

Eicher Motors, manufacturer of the iconic Royal Enfield motorcycle, has an entire engine assembly line managed by 140 women. Tyre manufacturer CEAT and Tata Steel also hire women in their factories.

Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV) aims to have a workforce comprising of 20 per cent women at its plant by 2022. It has also hired 46 women for shop floor operations at its Oragadam manufacturing facility near Chennai, as part of its ‘DiveIN’ (diversity and inclusive) initiative.

To ensure the welfare and wellbeing of the new female workers, DICV has implemented a comprehensive set of changes at the factory. These include suitable infrastructure and services, such as separate restrooms and changing rooms for female staff.

Satyakam Arya, managing director and CEO of DICV, said: “Diversity is critical to the long-term success of any organisation. How can you meet the expectations of a diverse market without a diverse workforce? At DICV, we are promoting inclusivity by welcoming women to our factory with a supportive, professional working environment.”

In February, Schwing Stetter hired women to work on the shop floor for the first time in its new factory in Cheyyar in Tamil Nadu. “Women constitute around 15 per cent of the 120 factory employees hired so far this year and are involved in making huge machines used for construction, such as concrete mixers,” said VG Sakthikumar, managing director of Schwing Stetter. He hopes to raise the percentage of female employees within the company’s workforce in the coming years.

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