Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 08 March 2024

Fall and rise in women’s work participation

Relevance: GS Paper I & III

Why in News:

The editorial analyses the trends in the women's work participation rate in India, highlighting the limitations of current data collection methods and the changing nature of the workforce.

Trends in women’s employment:

  • The debate surrounding Indian women's employment trends is closely related to the trend in poverty.
  • According to the data from the National Sample Surveys (NSS) and Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) -
    • The work participation rate for women aged 15 and above fluctuated around 42% between 1993-94 and 2004-05, declining to 28% in 2011-12 and plummeting to 22% in 2017-18.
    • However, from 2017, it surged and reached 36% in 2022-23.

Contrasting narratives:

  • The pessimistic story attributed the decline in women's work participation as a sign of declining job availability and later increase as a sign of poverty.
  • The optimistic story saw the initial decline as a sign of growing prosperity, allowing women to focus on their families, and the surge as a sign of increasing job opportunities.
  • The other saw this as a natural transformation of the economy chronicled by Claudia Goldin’s famous U-shaped curve, in which women are displaced from the labour market as the agricultural workforce moves to industrial employment, with female employment rebounding as the service economy again makes space for them.

Interpretation of trends in women's employment:

  • The foundation of these narratives is examined by breaking down 25-59-year-old women's work participation into three categories:
    • Self-employment in agriculture
    • Self-employment in other activities, mainly in petty manufacturing or shopkeeping and
    • Wage and salaried work in manual or white-collar work.
  • Women's work on family farms dropped from 23% to 10% between 1993 and 2017 but bounced back to 23%, more than doubling in the last five years.
  • Wage labour and self-employment in non-farm work remained more or less steady at 14-16% and 5-6%, respectively, although wage employment has shown a slight upward trend in recent years.
  • So, most of the changes are driven by the ebbing and flowing tide of women’s work on family farms.


Issues in measurement:

  • Labour force surveys face challenges, including pigeon-holing (assigned to a particular category) women raising chickens and children.
    • NSS and PLFS surveys ask interviewers to fill out a grid containing brief descriptions such as “usual principal activity” and “whether engaged in any work in a subsidiary capacity.”
    • Questions about principal and subsidiary activity status are unfamiliar to rural women whose days are spent feeding children, fetching water, washing cattle, harvesting grains, and making pickles for sale.
  • The interviewer’s job is to provide context and ask questions that elicit information about the key indicators of interest.
    • For example, a study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research traced the impact of question wording on women’s work participation rate.
    • Women’s work participation was initially measured using NSS-style questions and later through probing questions.
      • This increased the rural women’s work participation rate from 28% to 44% for the same women.
      • Most of the omissions were of women who were self-employed in agriculture and animal care.

Concerns related to manpower:

  • Historically, the issues in measurement were addressed by relying on trained and experienced field investigators who learned to interpret their questions while keeping local conditions in mind.
  • Until the late 1990s, interviewers were regular employees recruited locally. Since then, supervisors have been centrally recruited and often posted in areas they may not be familiar with, and interviewers are short-term contractual workers hired locally.

Decline in data quality:

  • The manpower has led to a steep decline in quality, culminating in the government disputing the quality of the NSS consumption expenditure survey in 2017-18.
    • A recognition of the declining quality of NSS surveys may have led to increasing attention to data quality, as evidenced by the increase in the strength of subordinate statistical services from 2,181 officers in 2009-10 to 3,121 in 2019-20.
  • This suggests that increased attention to capturing women’s work on family farms rather than an actual increase in farm work accounts for the doubling of women farmers over a short period of five years.

The counterargument:

  • A counter argument might be that the work participation rate for women from 2017 to 2022-23 increased due to economic shifts, particularly men’s movement out of agriculture, creating space for women.
    • However, between 2004-05 and 2017-18, male self-employment in farming declined modestly, from 33% to 25%, when the female work participation rate also declined.
  • Since then, the proportion of men classified as farmers/family helpers has increased slightly, accompanied by a much more significant increase for women.


Instead of debating the cause of the fall and the rise in the proportion of women farmers and family helpers, attention needs to focus on the relative stagnation in the proportion of women who are wage workers (around 16%) and owners/family helpers of small businesses (around 6%) and seek to expand women’s opportunities outside of agriculture, which is generally better paying.

Related News: Gender Disparities in Financial InclusionWorld Bank’s Legal Gender Gap Index

Mains PYQ:

Q. Examine the role of ‘Gig Economy’ in the process of empowerment of women in India. (UPSC 2021)

Q. What are the continued challenges for Women in India against time and space? (UPSC 2019)

Q. How does patriarchy impact the position of a middle class working woman in India? (UPSC 2014)