Why Women in India Earn Less And Get Fewer Jobs—Discrimination

Why Women in India Earn Less And Get Fewer Jobs—Discrimination

  • Others
  • by Mayurakshi Dutta
  • 01 Mar, 2023

The latest National and Family Health Survey (NFHS 5) reports that the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India is 25 per cent whereas for male LFPR it is 57.5 per cent. The difference is not surprising, yet deeply worrying.

Today is Zero Discrimination Day. This annual day celebrated on 1 March each year by the United Nations and other international organisations aims to promote equality before the law and in practice throughout all of the member countries of the United Nations. Let us understand how gender-based discrimination continues to play an active role in keeping women in the margins of the labour market and economic empowerment and what can be done to combat the discrimination that women face in the labour market.

India has historically reported a low female LFPR. Nepal (79 per cent) and Bhutan (52 per cent) are the countries with the highest female LFPRs and the rates are significantly more than India. Bangladesh (35 per cent), Maldives (34 per cent) and Sri Lanka (31 percent) also fare better than India. The only countries that fall behind India are Pakistan (21 per cent), Afghanistan (15 per cent), and Iran (14 per cent). Reeling under a predominantly patriarchal society that promotes the sexual division of labour, women have spent a disproportionate amount of time caring for their families and doing domestic chores, which have restricted women to the private sphere of their homes. Oxfam India’s 2020 inequality report titled On Women’s Backs asserts how unpaid care work eventually culminates in extreme forms of income and time poverty for women, affecting their health and emotional well-being and limiting their aspirations for education and paid work.

However, women’s involvement in unpaid care work is barely one factor that restricts women’s entry into the labor market. The bulk of studies that have analysed the country’s low female LFPRs have agreed upon four major factors:

  1. increased enrolment of girls in secondary education,
  2. increase in household incomes which have allowed women to leave agricultural labour,
  3. mismeasurement of women’s participation in the labour force such as not accounting for unpaid labour, and
  4. unavailability of employment opportunities in the non-farm sector.

This is, however, one side of the story.

The other  side of the story is about women who have entered the labor market and are engaged in paid employment. Oxfam India’s 2022 India Discrimination Report, which studied the differential access to the labor market, was a revelation. The labor market was found to mirror the sociocultural realities of the country. It found that the Indian labour market is typically characterized by an extreme gender gap in employment and wages and discriminatory attitudes toward women. The report observed that despite a decline in discrimination in the labour market in the past one and half decade, it is characterised by a high degree of gender discrimination.

It indicates that differences in individual endowments or capabilities such as the level of education, years of employment, ownership of assets, landholding and parental education do not adequately explain gendered inequalities in employment and wages and that gender-based discrimination is an important driver of these inequalities.

Individual endowments are beneficial for men and increase their chances at securing decent work much more than women. In fact, 98 per cent of the employment gap between men and women in urban areas is because of gender-based discrimination whereas differences in endowments explain only 2 per cent of that gap. Additionally, 67 per cent of the gender gap in wages can be attributed to gender-based discrimination.

An important driver of such discrimination are gender-linked prejudices of the employers and their gender-blind policies. Many employers deliberately employ men over women irrespective of their individual capabilities, despite being “fair and open”. Such employers believe that the requirements of the job entailing late hours of work, travel to remote areas, and certain working conditions etc., make women ill-suited for such jobs. Employers also practice status-based discrimination where they consider a woman’s marital status and motherhood responsibilities as obstacles that would hinder her competence and productivity in the workspace.

Sociologists coined the term “motherhood penalty” to refer to the additional disadvantages that mothers face compared to non-mothers and men. Insights from research suggests that employers are likely to hire non-mothers and men more than mothers are. If hired, mothers often receive a salary that is lower than the former. However, men do not experience such penalties on becoming fathers. Evidence, in fact, suggests that fathers enjoy a “fatherhood bonus” where their earnings increase.

In rural areas, particularly, the discrimination report makes another striking observation. The higher the level of education or income of the household heads, lesser are the chances of women joining the labour market. These households adhere to the sexual division of labour where men play the role of breadwinners and women take care of their families. Households, where the head has lesser levels of education and income, practice greater leniency on the sexual division of labour, particularly when families are in deep water for subsistence.

However, the sexual division of labour does not remain limited to the boundaries of home. It is extended to the labour market too. It is best explained in the book Seeing Like a Feminist, where Menon writes, “Certain kinds of work are considered to be 'women's work', and other kinds, men's;… nursing and teaching (particularly at lower levels) are predominantly female professions and are also comparatively ill-paid in relation to other white-collar jobs… this 'feminization' of teaching and nursing is because such work is seen as an extension of the nurturing work that women do within the home”.

Women are also more likely to be engaged in the informal sector in both rural and urban areas. NFHS-5 reports that 56.7 per cent females are engaged in informal non-agricultural sector across the country. They are also significantly more likely to be working as informal workers in the formal sector than men are. The state’s zero accountability towards it makes it a breeding ground for discrimination – the workers face high risks to their human and labour rights, unsafe and unregulated working conditions and lower wages among many other vulnerabilities. They are devoid of any employment security, paid leaves, health benefits or social security.

Committing to the fight against gender-based discrimination and ensuring economic equity will require our collective efforts for a sustained period. There is an urgent need to challenge gendered social norms that restrain women to their homes by starting conversations within our families and communities.

We need to strengthen and enable civil societies working on unpaid care work and allied issues to act as agents of change. Employers should ensure gender-sensitivity in their policies by providing paid parental leaves and flexible work schedules to ease the sharing of care work between working spouses and to balance home and work. The government can do its bit by enforcing effective measures for the protection of the right to equal wages and work for all women. It can also incentivise the women’s workforce participation, through enhancements in pay, upskilling, job reservations, easy return-to-work options, particularly after maternity and the option to work from home, wherever possible.

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