Why women get fewer jobs and earn lower wages than men in India

Regressive social norms and inadequate investment keep them unemployed and underemployed.

Published : Feb 27, 2023 12:39 IST

A handloom weaver at Peruvemba in Palakkad, Kerala. According to experts, most of the economic investment goes to the organised sector, which constitutes only 6 per cent of the workforce.

A handloom weaver at Peruvemba in Palakkad, Kerala. According to experts, most of the economic investment goes to the organised sector, which constitutes only 6 per cent of the workforce. | Photo Credit: K.K. MUSTAFAH

Following the announcement by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in October last year of equal pay for all men and women Team India cricketers, the highest bid received by a cricketer in the inaugural Women’s Premier League is being celebrated as a watershed moment, not just in India but globally. The celebration surrounding the auction, however, overshadows the discriminatory purses. Smriti Mandhana emerged the costliest player after Royal Challengers Bangalore bid her for Rs.3.4 crore, but Sam Curran, who is the most expensive men’s IPL player, was signed by Punjab Kings for Rs.18.5 crore.

This disparity has all the hallmarks of the gender pay gap highlighted by Oxfam’s India Discrimination Report 2022. The study revealed that women face bias both in recruitment and pay across the country, with the average monthly earning for men engaged in casual work being Rs.9,017 in 2020, which is 58 per cent higher than the Rs.5,709 that their women counterparts earned. Similarly, in the regular jobs sector, men earned an average of Rs.19,779 compared with Rs.15,578 for women, a 27 per cent difference. The gulf was the widest among the urban self-employed, with men’s average monthly earning being Rs.15,996, 141 per cent higher than the Rs.6,626 for women.

Though the female labour-force participation rate has increased to 25.1 per cent in 2020-21 from 18.6 per cent in 2018-19, according to the Economic Survey 2022-23, experts and campaigners feel that a lack of adequate investment in the unorganised; Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME); and rural development sectors, combined with safety concerns and regressive social norms, is keeping women underemployed or unemployed.

“Does the government have the courage to survey the newly added 7 per cent women in the workforce and confirm whether they have got gainful employment?” asked Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women.

“There is a jarring mismatch between official claims and ground reality”, she said, referring to the Union Budget 2023–24 as “boastful” and “deeply distressing”. “The country is facing multiple challenges like malnutrition, anaemia, stunting and wasting. The nominal increase in the budgetary allocations to tackle these issues is extremely inadequate,” she said.

Unpaid work

According to Mary John, a scholar in the field of women’s studies, the majority of women stay out of the recognised workforce because of a combination of factors—family duties, hostile workplaces, and a lack of decent work opportunities. “Women’s education has been expanding massively, but that doesn’t seem to be translating into more female work participation,” she told Frontline, adding that “women, including the well-educated, face the pressure to manage the household, and are heavily involved in the care and grooming of their children. This work remains unpaid and they are considered non-workers.”

Mary John went on to say that women were engaged in low paid and exploitative work in most private sector jobs, whereas in the public sector, where gender disparities are less, jobs were contracting and the workforce was being casualised.

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey’s 2020-21 Annual Report, labour force participation rate among Indian women is just 23.15 per cent compared with 57.75 per cent in men. Likewise, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-21 revealed that only 25.2 per cent of the women had a job, while 74.8 per cent of the men surveyed had been employed. Even in technology roles, women earn 29 per cent less than men, with the gap being even wider at the senior management level, according to a study by the National Association of Software and Services Companies. According to government data, women account for less than 10 per cent of judges in High Courts.

Political reservation

The right to equal pay and treatment was enshrined in the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, over 45 years ago, whereas the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, came into force soon after the Independence. “Though the laws exist, you see that in rural areas and in the unorganised sector or the private sector, the labour of the woman is always undervalued,” said Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). “For the same amount of work, men are paid more than the women. Women’s labour is used to enhance profits everywhere, depriving women of their equal rights.”

In the World Economic Forum’s gender parity ranking released in July 2022, India was in the 135th position among 146 countries, which is worse than neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, China, and Sri Lanka. In 2016, India was ranked 87th in the world.

While men earn 82 per cent of the labour income in India, women earn only 18 per cent of it, according to the World Inequality Report 2022. “Political empowerment records a declining score (in India) due to the diminishing share of years women have served as head of state for the past 50 years,” the report stated, stressing the importance of passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, which proposes to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the Lok Sabha and in all State Legislative Assemblies for women.

“Political reservation for women is an old demand, and it should have happened long ago after including a sub quota for the OBCs [Other Backward Classes],” said Mary John. “But there are larger economic issues at the policy level that also need to be redressed. Besides the stigma around the idea of women working in the public sphere, the economic policies of the neoliberal era are compounding the problem rather than mitigating it. The current government is only pushing for entrepreneurship as an answer to the problem of joblessness. Entrepreneurship is the toughest thing to do for those who are at a disadvantage. That’s the reason that the entrepreneurship schemes are proving ineffective.”

Dismal job scenario

Arun Kumar, an economist and former professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, blames weak job creation and faulty economic policies for the overall scarcity of gainful employment opportunities. “Most of the economic investment is going to the organised sector, which is highly automated and constitutes only 6 per cent of the workforce,” Kumar said. “If we focus on the micro sector for employment generation, it will particularly help a large number of women find paid work.”

Underscoring other factors responsible for poor job growth, he said, “When the economy is hardly growing, e-commerce is growing by 30-40 per cent a year. This has affected a lot of people engaged in small businesses. The agriculture sector, which is also getting automated, is not generating jobs. Women may get some work through the [Mahatma Gandhi National] Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. But data show that instead of the guaranteed 100 days of work under the scheme, people are getting only 45 to 55 days work.”

Referring to the massive job losses during and after the pandemic, Kumar said the government should have increased the allocation for MGNREGA besides its work-days. To make matters worse, he said, rural development spending has been reduced.

“Women are preferred in certain specialised jobs such as nursing and school teaching. We should be spending 6 per cent of the GDP on public education and at least 3 per cent of the GDP on public health. But year after year, the expenditure in these sectors remains inadequate,” Kumar said.

According to Kumar, funds are being allotted to capital-intensive sectors as power and transport. “It’s a deliberate strategy to force people to leave rural areas and come to urban areas to ensure that cities get cheap labour force. Otherwise, there are several ways to create employment. Micro industries, and agriculture, education and healthcare sectors are employment intensive.” Unless the unorganised sector becomes highly buoyant, he said, women will not find employment.

Attributing poor job creation in the unorganised sector to a combination of four factors—demonetisation, the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, the Non-Banking Financial Crisis, and the pandemic—Kumar said that the move to formalise and digitise unorganised sector had backfired. “We have 66 crore micro industrial units, 6,000 larger units, and 6 lakh small and medium units. At least 99 per cent of MSMEs are micro units that employ 97.5 per cent of the MSME workforce,” he said, insisting on the need for supporting the micro sector through technology, marketing, and finance, besides making the GST the last point tax.

Kumar said that providing minimum support prices to all food crops will make the agriculture sector profitable. “The enhanced spending power of farmers will help boost the unorganised sector. If you give a living wage to all agriculture workers, then demand for other things will also rise. We need to give the micro sector, which is the largest component of the industry, and the services sector the access to technology finance and marketing.”

No new employment opportunities

According to Mariam Dhawale, the pro-corporate policies of the Narendra Modi government, which catapulted changes in labour laws in 2019, have put the livelihood of poor people at a greater risk. “The recent Budget does not talk about food security or about generating employment, or improving health services and social services,” she said.

Blaming the government of misleading the country on the issue of employment generation, she said, “In general, the unpaid work of women is increasing because of the government’s withdrawal from the civic and social sectors. The work that women do within the domestic sphere remains unpaid. And outside also, women have been left with no option but to take up exploitative and badly paid livelihoods as the government remains unsuccessful in generating remunerative employment opportunities.”

Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA workers, protesting against the government for delayed salaries and other issues they face, at Freedom Park in Bengaluru on December 21, 2022.

Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA workers, protesting against the government for delayed salaries and other issues they face, at Freedom Park in Bengaluru on December 21, 2022. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR 

Annie Raja pointed to the long-standing demands of anganwadi workers and helpers in the Integrated Child Development Services and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), who were among the six recipients of the World Health Organisation’s Global Health Leaders Award for their “crucial role in linking the community with the health system and ensuring that those living in rural poverty can access primary health care services”. “Why has the government not been recognising them as workers? The government calls them volunteers. During the pandemic, ASHA workers were glorified as front-line warriors. But the same government has denied them minimum wages. The condition of agricultural workers is worse,” she said.

The government recently launched the Mahila Samman Bachat Patra for women. The one-time new small savings scheme will be available for a two-year period up to March 2025, offering a deposit facility up to Rs.2 lakh in the name of women or girls at fixed interest rate of 7.5 per cent with a partial withdrawal option. Annie Raja described the scheme as “a cruel joke on women”. “When women are not gainfully employed, where will they get the money from to save? Budgetary allocations for women and children have been slashed at a time when Indian households continue struggling to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Annie Raja said the budgetary allocations of all Centrally sponsored welfare schemes aimed at empowering women remain inadequate. “At a time when the country has been reeling under price rise and unemployment, the government has systematically been weakening MGNREGA, and it has not been spending enough money to ensure women safety and security, which is vital to enable women to work in any sector,” she said. “Let’s not forget that any law that provides safeguards to women has not come on a platter. Such legislation stands on the blood and dead bodies of women.”

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