Renu Rai Yalgaonkar grew up in Lonavala, a hill station close to Mumbai, India.
Her father moved to Lonavala from a relatively poorer area to work for the Indian railways. Her mother was a homemaker. Yalgaonkar and her five siblings always lived on their father’s single income.
Yalgaonkar holds a university degree, had some early success as a mathematics tutor, and even got a scholarship to enroll in a management program in the United Kingdom. But when she got married, she stopped working.
“Since [my husband’s] family was really well-to-do and there was no financial need,” she said.
Many Indian women like Yalgaonkar are more educated and healthier than in the past, but their participation in the workforce is declining, which has surprised global economists. Across the world, higher economic growth has seen a rise in women’s employment. But India is bucking that trend.
In 2005, 35% of Indian women were working. By 2021, that number had drastically reduced to 19%. For context, India’s economic growth in 2005 was approximately 9%, while in 2021, the country grew at 21%.
Indian leaders predict that the country will become the 3rd largest economy in the world in the next few years, behind the US and China. But economists are saying that’s unlikely — although India is the most populous country in the world, women are not doing enough paid work.
Yalgaonkar’s experience is common to an entire generation that benefited from the opening up of India’s economy in the early 1990s, when many middle-class families were propelled to wealth.
“Male wages increased and they withdrew women from the workforce [because they could] manage on one salary,” said Vibhuti Patel, a former gender studies scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
In other countries, education for women often translates to employment, but that’s not the case in India, according to Sairee Chahal, who runs an online employment and entrepreneurship platform called Sheroes. Chahal said educated women in India join the workforce but often drop out when family responsibilities take over.
Nandita Bedi graduated with an economics degree from Lady Shri Ram College at the University of Delhi. She worked at an organization that would influence IT policy in the 1990s, when the internet was just making inroads into India.
Bedi moved cities after she got married.
“I quit my job when I moved from Delhi to Calcutta,” she said.
Bedi decided to quit her job because she felt her children needed her attention. Her husband supported the change. Nuclear families with limited extended support along with insufficient child care options mean women like Bedi often make the choice to prioritize their families.
Bedi’s family moved to nearly a dozen cities in 25 years, due to her husband’s work. She spent most of her time adjusting her family to the new cities and setting up homes in each of them.
In 2014, a Hindu nationalist party took over at the federal level. Patel, the gender studies scholar, said although conservative ideas existed before that, gender stereotypes have been consolidated since then.
“Women are valorized as homemakers,” she said.
Many women in India have in fact dropped out of the labor force, but experts say the numbers are misleading because women who work in informal economies often get paid in cash that is not reflected in the gross domestic product.
For example, Anisa Sheikh works as a cleaner in Mumbai, earning about $35 a month that is paid in cash. When her 9-year-old son fell ill, she took cash loans to get him treated at a nearby hospital.
“I don't have a bank account, I care for my three children with whatever cash I get paid as salary,” she said.
According to a 2018 International Labor Organization report, about 82% of the total number of working women like Sheikh do not get counted in the GDP. They are concentrated in the informal sector, working in fields such as domestic work, home-based work, waste picking, construction and street vending.
Many of these women were formerly employed in agriculture and livestock industries and made significant contributions to their family incomes. But “agriculture is highly mechanized, which has left a lot of women unemployed,” economist Nisha Srivastava said.
As the Indian economy grows, machines are replacing more and more jobs, which is yet another reason why fewer women are in the workforce.
Men can migrate, Srivastava pointed out, while migration for women is not always an option since they often play dual roles as caregivers at home.
Sairee Chahal said she sees this often in her work with Sheroes.
“Women continue to be caregivers, which means every woman who has a job has a second job."
“Women continue to be caregivers, which means every woman who has a job has a second job. At some point she comes to a decision to say ‘which one can I keep?’ She obviously can't give up her home. It is a systemic trade off, very deeply embedded,” Chahal said.
Patel, the gender studies scholar, said when the number of available jobs shrink, men are prioritized for them. “Women are the first victims of the changes that are coming up in the production processes,” she said.
Chahal, with Sheroes, added that jobs are not a policy priority in India. But, when women work, the results are transformative. “Children get better education, better health care, better savings, better safety nets,” she said.
Bringing women back into the workforce means focusing on safer commutes and better child care options. But experts also say the nation needs to address the prevalent outlook that considers women’s work less important than men’s work.
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