Why the Nobel for gender study is a wake-up call


That “advancing our understanding of women’s labour market outcomes,” was enough motivation for the Nobel committee to grant the prize to Claudia Goldin for economics is arguably a hugely telling commentary on the pathetic state of this planet in recognising the power of half its residents. Her insightful paper titled, “Why Women Won” put out by the National Bureau of Economic Research along with her book about  urban slavery in America’s South in the mid-1800s and other papers add up to an enduring journey in gender labour-market inequality that not just educates and also helps bust many myths. While many have found good reasons to celebrate her contributions there have also been questions on where India stands on female labour participation. The World Bank gender data portal points to  labour force participation rate among females at just about 24 per cent and among males is 73.6 per cent in India for 2022. Describing labour force participation rate as the proportion of the population ages 15 and older that is economically active, it says, “since 1990, female labour force participation had decreased. Compared with labour force participation in the lower-middle income group, it says, “the gap between men and women is higher in India.”

The PLFS reports

This has been a subject of discussion and even raised in the Indian parliament with the official response pointing to the contrary. On March 20th this year, Rameswar Teli, minister of state for labour and employment, in a written reply to a question raised that day on this in the Lok Sabha informed that the labour force participation rate of women was in showing an increasing trend. 

Quoting data on employment and unemployment collected through Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) conducted by the Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation (MoSPI) since 2017-18, the minister said, “the survey period is July to June of next year and as per the latest available Annual PLFS Reports, the estimated Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) on usual status for women of age 15 years and above in the country was 30.0 per cent, 32.5 per cent and 32.8 per cent during 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22, respectively, which shows an increasing trend.” He then goes on to talk of the different measures being taken by the government to improve women’s participation in the labour force.  

What the PLFS misses

While it may still be an arduous journey ahead with a lot more work to be done, there are complexities and nuances involved that a working paper put out by the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) points to in March this year. In an explanatory tweet, the EAC says, “India’s PLFS does not capture economically productive work done by women like poultry farming, milking of cows as part of their domestic duties. This pushes a significant proportion of women in the active labour force into the ‘out of labour force’ category.” 

Unpaid caregiving 

Also, a Niti Aayog report titled, “India – three year action agenda (2017-18 to 2019-20),” makes a telling observation: “evidence-based research shows that women in India tend to be paid less, work in less productive jobs, and are overrepresented in unpaid care-giving work. Globally, if women spend three times more time on unpaid work than men, in India it is 9.8 times more.” If that was assessed for wages, it argues, “it would add Rs.19.85 lakh crore or USD 300 billion to the GDP. The huge spectrum of women’s skilled but unpaid work contributes directly to the economy. Yet, its devaluation by not being accounted for as ‘work’ weakens women’s status, leading to their vulnerability.”

However we define it, evidently, there is an unfinished agenda as the note. Even the note by the minister in the parliament goes on to explain the measures being taken. For instance, it says, “to enhance the employability of female workers, the government is providing training to them through a network of Women Industrial Training institutes, National Vocational Training Institutes and Regional Vocational Training Institutes.” This could arguably help deal with what many experts often describe as the “massive gender skill gap.”

Beyond an enabling law 

That seems to be a path Social entrepreneurs are also advocating. Chetna Gala Sinha, a social entrepreneur and the founder, president of the Mann Deshi Foundation that is focussed on empowerment of rural women entrepreneurs, says, “the World Economic Forum came out with a global index on women and India emerged as the second last country as far as women workforce participation was concerned.” And this could change. “If we want to change this and want more women to participate in the workforce then,” then she sees a need beyond “some enabling laws that are being put in place like those relating to extension of maternity benefits and the focus more on providing access “skills, education and technology. Without these, the women will increasingly end up working in the informal sectors with wages lower than even blue-collar workers and employed either as wage labourers, stone breakers or in their own farm which is not even counted.”

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