“Gender equality does not imply that all women and men must be the same. Instead, it entails equipping both with equal access to capabilities; so that they have the freedom to choose opportunities that improve their lives. It means that women have Equal access to resources and rights as men, and vice versa”.

India is amongst the fastest growing countries in the world today, with a GDP growth rate of more than 8 % during the XI plan period. This high level of growth can, however, be sustained only when all sections of the society, specially women become equal partners in the development process. It is well recognized that societies which discriminate by gender tend to experience less rapid economic growth and poverty reduction than societies which treat men and women more equally. India is a nation build on democratic ideals and principles. The fundamental rights incorporated within its constitution were equally entitled to the women form the very beginning .Tracing from such an enhancing historical background of gender equality and turning to the present grim scenario, the subject of women empowerment needs an elaborate scrutiny, particularly in an environment of rapid economic, social and political development across the globe. The pivotal question which needs a critical analysis: Is economic development a means or end to women empowerment?

The participation of women in the workforce, the quality of work allotted to them and their contribution to the GDP are indicators of the extent of their being mainstreamed into the economy. Some important facts and figures can well illustrate that despite of rapid economic growth the participation of female in India’s economy is disappointingly low.

  • For women’s economic participation, India ranked 124th, (towards the bottom of the 136 countries listed in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Index), and for women’s educational opportunity a ranking of 120.
  • The share of women in usual status workers declined from 28.7% to 22.8%. In rural areas this has declined from 32.7% to 26.1% and in urban areas from 16.6% to 13.8%.
  • Women earn 62% of men’s salary for equal work.
  • Women received 12 weeks paid maternity leave.
  • Women are just 3% of legislative, management, and senior official positions.
  • In 2010, Women held only 5.3% of board directorships of BSE-100 companies.
  • 22.6% of women are employed in business and they make up 14% of senior management roles.
  • According to Gender Diversity Benchmark, 2011, India has the lowest national female labour force and the worst leaking pipeline for junior to middle level position women. 28.71% of those at the junior level of the workplace,14.9% of those at the middle level,9.32% of those at the senior level.
  • In June 2014, India was ranked 116 out of 189 countries ranked in descending order for percentage of women in Parliaments.

This data clearly states that economic development of India is not an end in itself and does not represent a report card of women empowerment and development .The issue of gender inequality is not only related to economic participation but there are numerous other social, cultural and political factors, particularly in context of India, which acts as barrier to women emancipation and empowerment, but it’s important to analyze and examine  economic integration as an  important enabling factor that  has a multiplier effect on other  related issues. For example when a women works outside the home i.e. employed and earns a wage her contribution to the family prosperity is more visible; she also has her voice, because of being less dependent on others. So the freedom to seek and hold outside jobs can contribute to the reduction of women’s relative – and absolute deprivation. Freedom in one area (that of being able to work outside home) seems to help to foster freedom in others (in enhancing freedom from hunger, illness and fertility rate): this can also eventually help in combating the issue of population and over use of environmental resources because of low fertility rates. In this era of globalization when economic policies holds the life line across countries and knowledge based service sectors are fast approaching the roads of developing countries , participation of women in such movement can give voice to her freedom and dignity and  can change her stereotype identities.

Then why is India’s female labour participation rate so low?

In 2008, the labour participation rate in India was only 33 per cent for females as compared to 81 per cent for males. By way of comparison, it was 68 per cent for females in China. Among Indian States, the female labour participation rate is one of the lowest in the capital region of India, Delhi which is also a centre of major national and international political activities and policy making.

The labour force includes not only the employed but also unemployed persons who are actively seeking jobs. In India, substantial numbers of women who are not counted in the labour force are, as described in the official statistics, ‘attending to domestic duties’ in their own households. In 2009-10, out of every 1,000 females (all ages) in India’s rural areas, 347 were attending to domestic duties. In the case of urban females, this number was even bigger: 465 per 1000. Compare this to the number of rural and urban men who were attending to domestic duties: only 5 per 1,000 and 4 per 1,000 respectively.

A woman’s work in her own household is not counted as an economic activity, and does not get reported in the national income statistics. This is unlike the case of services by a paid domestic help, which is considered an economic activity and is counted in the national income. As is well known, women’s domestic duties include childbirth, caring for the young and old, cooking, and a range of other activities that are crucial for the upkeep of the family.However, society undervalues these immense contributions made by women. And, to some extent, official statistics is a mirror to the prejudices in the society. In India, social factors play a significant role in low women’s labour participation. Husbands and in-laws often discourage women from working, while, in many parts of the country, restrictions are imposed even on their movements outside the household, but there are some conflicting facts to examine within the whole context, there is a other side of the story which contradicts with the development framework, the low labour participation particularly among urban, educated women — the section of the female society that is, in fact, less likely to be constrained by social factors. In 2009-10, in urban areas the proportion of those women attending to domestic duties (and therefore out of the labour force) 57 per cent with graduate degrees or higher, compared to just 31 per cent among rural females with primary or middle school education. What are the reasons for such a massive withdrawal of educated women from the work force? This situation needs an introspection because with changing dynamics of India’s economy there is huge gap between its overall economic condition and aspirations of its half the population .Even in urban places where development is the mantra, why does this gap exists? And what’s the scenario in rural areas, do these greater numbers signify qualitative participation or is it just a mirage?

The factor that pushes female labour participation in India to particularly low depths is the not sheer absence of suitable employment opportunities but policies related to it.Within Indian manufacturing, women’s employment is increasingly in the low-paid, vulnerable sectors. Between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, women accounted for 3.7 million of the 9.7 million new manufacturing jobs created in the country. A large proportion of these women were employed in the export-oriented sectors such as garment-making.During the post-1990 years, the major source of employment for women has been in the services sector, mainly in low-paid services such as domestic help. At the same time, females accounted for only a small share of the relatively high quality jobs generated in India in recent years: for instance, only 20 per cent of the new jobs created in financing, real estate and business services during the 2000s, and 10 per cent of the new jobs generated in computer and related activities during the second half of the 2000s. In rural areas, where figures show an increasing female labour force holds broken and impoverished image of her. In rural areas women periodically enter and exit from agricultural work. Quite often, women’s participation in agricultural activities as self-employed workers is to supplement the falling incomes of their families during times of agrarian distress. About 79 % of the rural women workers are employed in the agriculture sector, a sector that is marked by shortage of paid jobs, decelerating and differential wages on basis of gender and degradation of resources. It is estimated that about 60% of all agricultural operations are handled exclusively by women, more than half the women workers in agriculture are employed as unpaid family workers. Female hourly wage rates in agriculture vary from 50 to 75% of male rates, and are too low to overcome absolute poverty. While economic development creates more jobs in the industrial and service sectors it is the men who move away and avail of these while the women who are left behind are compelled to become the prime agriculturists without the benefits of having the title to the land, the necessary resources and access to credit, seeds, fertilizers, extension services etc- required for enhancing production and household income. They may also have to cope with debts left behind by the men. Hence, a highly vulnerable group of women is being created on the same stage of economic growth.

The major reasons for low female work force are: quality of work allotted to women and consequent remuneration, the majority of women work in informal and unorganized sector where they are poorly paid, have unsatisfactory conditions of work, do not enjoy the protection of labour laws, have no control on the terms and conditions of their employment and are subject to great insecurity of employment .Even in organized and high paid jobs women feel insecure because of the chauvinistic male attitude, they are denied of flexible working conditions and policies which has to coexist with their natural and biological timeline ,For example Despite the promises of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, pregnant working women continue to get a raw deal. The recent debate over PepsiCo CEO Indira K Nooyi statement that “women can’t have it all” can well read the state of mind of working women in this context.

Women’s economic participation is hindered by low skills, the gender gap in educational level of the labour force. In 2004-05, 60% of the female employed was illiterate and 3.7% were graduates, these shares for the male labour force were about 28% and nearly 8%, respectively. Another important factor which is crucial for integration of women in economy is financial inclusion. Women remain inadequately covered by the banking system as they own only 20.8 percent of the total deposit accounts in scheduled commercial banks and 11.3 percent of the total deposits. The situation is equally bad when one looks at the credit scenario. Women had access to only 19.8 percent of the small borrowed accounts of scheduled banks with an outstanding credit share of 16.8 percent.These factors form the web entrapping  women and hindering their integration  in economic development of India.

To overcome these barriers government has taken several important steps which have helped women to come forward and participate freely in the journey of development along the nation.The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Work Place Bill, 2010, Maternity Benefit Act ,Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 (ERA)  . Several other policies and programmes have been initiated to integrate women in the process of development .Like, Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Yojana for women farmers, a scheme for leadership training of Minority women, National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW) it will work for strengthening inter-sectoral convergence at the Central, State, District and lower levels of governance making it possible for women to know about and access all Government schemes and programmes. Opening of Special bank for women will boost their financial inclusion as” Mahila state Bank”.

These measures though have initiated the process but there is far a long way to reach the desired destination, where females are equally integrated into the development story with freedom and aspirations. Creating more jobs and ensuring better working conditions for women will encourage greater female participation in the economy. Policies that would allow a greater compatibility of female employment with domestic responsibilities, and policies to improve the safety of female workers in the private sector could also draw more women into the workforce. Maternity benefits for women in higher education and special crèches at office space can immensely help women to pursue their aspirations Ultimately, however, values and attitudes towards female employment will need to change in order to change this state of affairs. This includes the acceptance of female employment also for women with children and greater acceptance of female employment in traditionally male-dominated fields. In this sense, a politicization of the issue might be key.

Gender equality and empowerment would, thus, need to be a core development goal if a sustained growth is to be achieved. Economic progress on its own may not do much to reduce gender inequalities .Human capital is the engine of economic development and to harness the beneficial “demographic dividend” our democratic institutions should weave a road map for equal participation of its half of the population. Integration of women in India’s economy holds the key to its untapped potential. Lakshmi Puri, the assistant secretary-general of UN Women, noted in 2011 that India’s growth rate could jump by 4.2 percent if women were given more opportunities. That would push India’s current growth rate of about 7.5 percent closer to 11 percent, making it, once again, one of the world’s fastest accelerating economies.

About the Author:


Richa Kapoor is currently working as Research Associate at Adhrit Foundation. She has done PGDM in Fashion Retail Management from Pearl Academy of Fashion, Jaipur. She also holds 2.5 years work experience as a Retail Planner. She is an active debater and an avid writer. She actively participates in various social service initiatives. Her interest lies in Social Sector Management and Child Education.