Women and Indian society | Business Standard Editorials

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/women-and-indian-society-122030600996_1.html

Deep-rooted conservatism widens gender gaps

The two theories that are usually circulated to explain India’s low female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) are that women typically step out of the workplace to make way for the menfolk when unemployment is high and that many of them step out of the workforce to educate themselves. A recent Pew Research Centre on gender dynamics in the home and the economy adds a third explanation that suggests that the problem may be more deep-rooted: That India’s persistently low FLFPR is the result of the deep-seated conservatism of Indian society. This is underlined by the fact that the FLFPR has worsened with the slowing of the Indian economy before the pandemic came, and the consequences of Covid thereafter. Thus, an FLFPR of 33.1 per cent in 2011-12 slipped to 25.3 in 2017-18, coinciding with a 45-year high in unemployment, and further to 20 per cent now, among the lowest in the world. The Pew Survey showed that more than half the Indians think men should get job preferences when jobs are scarce. In contrast, a UN Global Attitudes Survey (2019) across 61 countries, surveyed from 2013 to 2019, shows that only a median of 17 per cent completely agree with the statement. Fully a quarter of the Indians surveyed favoured the traditional family dynamic of the wife taking care of the house and children over the more updated one of both spouses holding jobs and equally sharing the household burden. Conservatism towards gender issues cuts across genders, age, and education. For instance, 82 per cent of the men think men should get job preference, only marginally more than women at 77 per cent. Where 45 per cent of the Indians over 35 years of age think men should be the primary earners, the proportion for those between 34 and 18 years was marginally less at 42 per cent. Fully 80 per cent of the Indians with college education believe women must obey their husbands.

These attitudes, prevalent three decades after economic liberalisation, point to the long distance that Indians must travel to reach parity with the developed world, as many aspire to do. The fact that women constitute 48 per cent of the population but remain mostly excluded from access to economic opportunities was clear immediately after the national lockdown was lifted in 2020. During the three months ended September 2020, the unemployment rate among women touched 15.8 per cent against 12.6 per cent among men workers. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, women accounted for 10.7 per cent of the workforce in 2019-20, but suffered 13.9 per cent of the job losses in April 2020. At least part of this asymmetry is a result of conservatism among employers as well. Women tend to be employed in service industries such as tourism, retail, housekeeping services, and so on, all of which are considered “suitable” jobs for them. These are the industries that have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 closures. Unlike, say, Southeast Asia or even Bangladesh, women are seldom employed in factories or equivalent jobs. Small wonder, then, that India slipped 28 places on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, ranking 140th among 156 nations, making it the third-worst performer in South Asia, ahead of the two failed states of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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