Despite low female participation in the workforce, why more women are facing unemployment in the pandemic, explained

Society is no stranger to the fact that every woman's work is labour, but not every working woman is paid. The pandemic has only further pushed women to the margins of the workforce across the world, especially in India where, according to a World Bank report released in June 2020, India’s female labour force participation rate fell to 20.3 percent.

Besides, the country has also fallen to the 140th position out of 156 countries by sliding down 28 places in the 2021 Gender Gap Index, which employs parameters such as economic participation, political empowerment, health, survival, and education to determine the positions of various countries on its list. Therefore, the aforementioned studies, besides several others, point to women losing out on the momentum they had built professionally through the decades as a result of several factors impacting their exclusion from the workforce.

Women and household work

According to figures published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development from 2019, women in India spend up to 352 minutes every day on domestic work, which is 577 per cent more than the amount of labour spent by men on household chores. Men typically spend an average of 52 minutes on such work each day.

This glaring disparity in gender roles forms the foundation on which women's employment in India stands, compelling them to drop out, or be left out of the work force on account of the pressures they face at home to shoulder familial responsibilities. In the Tamil Nadu elections held earlier this year, actor-politician Kamal Haasan had even vowed to pay Rs 3,000 to women whose work and labour go unaccounted economically. Other parties soon latched on to this idea and promised to do the same.

Women in unorganised sectors

In May-August 2016, the female labour participation rate fell from 16.4 percent steadily after cushioning the demonetisation shock, and stabilised at 11 percent between mid-2018 and early 2020, according to figures released by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) in Mumbai.

The pandemic, further worsened this predicament as this number plummeted to a shocking 9 percent. According to the CMIE report, women formed 10.7 percent of the workforce in 2019-20, however, they accounted for 13.9 percent of the job losses in April 2020. The organisation further estimates that 49 percent of the total job losses suffered by November 2020 were by women, when most men had managed to find their way back into the labour force by the end of last year.

To give further insight into this phenomenon, a study by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University titled State of Working India 2021 – One year of COVID-19 shows how during the lockdown and in the months following it, 61 percent of working men continued to remain employed, while only 7 percent lost employment and did not return to the labour force. But for women, only 19 percent remained employed, while a whopping 47 percent suffered permanent job losses during the lockdown, as they did not return to work even by the end of 2020.

So instead of having women abandon agricultural labour and shift towards better-paid, more secure and industrial jobs —as was achieved in numerous East Asian and Southeast Asian countries — India has compelled them to leave the labour force altogether.

Women in organised sectors

Women working in corporate set ups have also found it difficult to retain their jobs during the pandemic, with several complaining about their organisations not providing them conveyance after insisting on their return to office, once the economy started to reopen.

With pressures of domestic work increasing exponentially for women in the past year due to lockdown, working from home provided them with the option to continue with their jobs while carving out time for household chores as well. However, easing back into an office setup meant disruption to the established work and home life balance, resulting in a large section of women dropping out of the workforce to continue shouldering their household responsibilities. Apprehensions about travelling to work and in turn, exposing their families to the risk of infection is an important cause behind dropping out of jobs too.

Also read on Firstpost — COVID-19 impact: Women employed in India's informal sector report food insecurity, financial and social exclusion


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