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Nearly 400m people live in cities in India and during the next 40 years that number will more than double. Not only is the proportion of India’s total female population that is economically active among the lowest in the world, but urban areas do even worse. New analysis of data from the 2011 census shows only half as many urban women work as their rural counterparts.
Few states – including Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – do worse than India when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce. Others such as Somalia, Bahrain and Malaysia do much better. Among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which are comparable emerging economies, India has the lowest female participation rate, with only 29% of women over the age of 15 working. As the chart below shows, even among the MINT countries – Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia and Turkey – only Turkey has the same participation rate as India.
In mainly agricultural economies, urban women often find less work than rural ones. Half the working population in India is employed by the agricultural sector. But agriculture’s contribution to Indian economy has been steadily falling and is now less than half that of the services industry. This should have corresponded with rapid growth in numbers of working women in cities, but that hasn’t happened.
Economists have tried to understand this discrepancy. Some cite the problem to be India’s unemployment rate among the young, who make more than half of the population. But such joblessness should affect both men and women, and it also doesn’t explain the long-term trend of low women’s workforce participation rates. Others believe that younger people in cities are staying in education for longer. While that certainly contributes to the overall picture, it cannot explain the large difference between urban and rural figures.
Some discrepancy may arise because many women are involved in home-based work and are part of the informal sector, where their contribution tends to be under-reported. “Better enumeration will help, but measurement is not the only reason participation rates are so low in India, especially in urban areas,” Sher Verick, a senior fellow at the International Labour Organisation, said.
According to Verick, the two main factors keeping women at home are social customs and very low education levels among women.
Breaking such customs is hard. Preet Rustagi, joint director of Institute for Human Development in Delhi, said: “To a certain extent, men control women’s lives. And women have internalised this as the norm. In such situations, the little work they do is the result of compulsion, such as when the household income is not enough, rather than choice.”
The power of social norms may be partially explained based on data from the city of Leicester in the UK, where one in four city-dwellers is of Indian background. According to a 2010 report by Sheffield Hallam University: “Economic activity rates among Indian women in Leicester are nine percentage points lower than for Indian women nationally.” In a large enough group of Indians, those social norms are more strongly held than when Indians are widely dispersed in the rest of the UK.
Although education levels have improved in recent decades, not as many educated women have found work.
“In India, there is a U-shaped relationship between education and participation of women in the workforce,” Verick said. “Illiterates participate more out of necessity. Women with a middle-level education (below graduate) have different aspirations and can afford to remain out of the workforce. Only better educated women have been ‘pulled’ into the labour force in response to better paid opportunities.”
Rustagi said a skills shortage among women is also to blame. “There is a large divide between what they can do and what jobs are on offer.” For instance, the lowest worker sex ratio is seen in construction, manufacturing and the retail trade, which are booming in cities.
The safety of women is also a concern in Indian cities, as was highlighted after the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. Better governance and improved policing ought to help, but urban India’s gender imbalance is a deeper cause for worry. The national average is 940 females per 1,000 males, but that drops to 912 for cities with a population larger than 1m. The imbalance is greater still in India’s biggest cities, with Delhi at 867 females per 1,000 males and Mumbai at 861.
The discrepancy in these figures may be partly explained by the mass migration of workers, mainly men, from rural to urban areas, according to Varsha Joshi, director of India’s census operations. But the drop is large enough that further investigation is needed to spot other reasons.
There are some positive signs. According to India’s National Sample Survey, the proportion of working women in urban areas has increased from 11.9% in 2001 to 15.4% in 2011. Rustagi said: “One of the fastest-growing sectors for urban working women has been domestic work. About 1.5m urban women were added to that sector in the last decade, which is more than one in ten jobs created for women in that time.”
But the areas that have shown the most significant growth, such as domestic work, tend to fall into the category of “informal” work – and under India’s labour laws, these workers have few workplace rights. This makes it harder for women to have sustainable jobs, let alone a career.
Indians go to the polls in April and, partly as a result of the focus of women’s issues, most parties have adopted promises about women’s empowerment as part of their campaigns, but none have spelt these promises out in any detail.
Over 100 nations have adopted gender quotas in politics, giving women leading roles in society. Even beyond these reserved spaces, it has helped bring more women into the work force. This may be good for society, but the means towards this goal raise two questions: What is the reason for the increase beyond the quotas? If so, are quotas the best way forward?
Two studies published in Science earlier this year may hold the answers. The first exploited a naturalised experiment in India. A law adopted in 1993 mandated a randomly chosen one-third of village councils to elect a woman as the chief councilor. Lori Beamanan, an economist at Northwestern University, and her colleagues from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the International Monetary Fund, found the perfect setting to study the long-term effects of quotas.
The study looked at parents’ desires for their children’s educational attainment, age of marriage, occupation at the age of 25, and whether they wished the child to become chief councilor. Results from the studyshowed that villages which had female leaders wanted the young women to do more than villages without. The aspirations for the sons remained almost the same.
Adolescents’ motivations showed a similar trend. Girls in villages with female leaders were more ambitious than girls in villages without. They had more desire for educational attainment, went to school more often and spent fewer hours doing chores. Little change in boys’ aspirations was observed.
Role model effect
But what explains these large differences? Women in power are known to implement women-friendly policies such as better water supply. These can reduce time spent on domestic chores and allow women to aspire for more. At the same time that may be the upshot of watching other women do more. So is the explanation policy implementation or the role model effect?
Dr Beaman points out that no experiment can completely distinguish the two. But during the study, which lasted from 1998 to 2007, there were no policy changes in education provisions or career options for young women in the villages, thus the changes in behaviour must be the result of the role model effect.
In the subset of 495 villages that the researchers chose, chief councilor places were reserved for women once, twice or never in the decade of the study. This allowed for studying the effect of a ‘dose response’ in exposure to female leadership.
They found no major infrastructural difference among villages which had women leaders once or twice. Yet, people in villages which had female chiefs for two terms had a better opinion of women’s capabilities than the people in villages which were led by a woman for one term.
Best way forward
In the public sector quotas seem to encourage women, but in a corporate setting they are unpopular because of their inherently unfair nature. The second study published in Science offers an alternative. Matthias Sutter, an economist at University of Innsbruck, and his colleague found that “weak preferential treatment” works just as well as quotas do.
The researchers looked at four different approaches: quotas, weak preferential treatment (women win in a tie-break), strong preferential treatment (women win against more qualified men) and repetition of competition (until a female winner emerges). As studying these approaches in the real word is difficult, researchers used well-known lab-based experiments to assess them. Their results suggest predictably that strong preferential treatment had the largest effect. But surprisingly quotas and weak preferential treatment turned out to be almost as effective.
In a special report in 2011 The Economist concluded that women have come far but there is a long way to go to close the gap, especially in developing countries and in corporate boardrooms. Quotas are a good solution in the public sector, but in companies a better answer may be to let women win when they prove themselves equal to men.
1. Beaman, L., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2012). Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India Science, 335 (6068), 582-586 DOI: 10.1126/science.1212382
2. Balafoutas, L., & Sutter, M. (2012). Affirmative Action Policies Promote Women and Do Not Harm Efficiency in the Laboratory Science, 335 (6068), 579-582 DOI: 10.1126/science.1211180