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Sex discrimination and women in the workforce

Women working in a paddy field in Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. Women in India are “highly over-represented in the low value-added industries as well as occupations, such as agriculture, textiles, and domestic service.”

Endemic sex discrimination takes its toll on the Indian economy, with the absence of women in the workforce, an imbalanced sex ratio, and social prejudices holding back a boon for India’s GDP. 

According to a report published recently in The Print, almost 120 million women who have at least a secondary education do not participate in the workforce. The consequence is that India’s GDP is missing out on more than Rs 30 lakh crore and the chance for a more educated workforce. Even if only half of the 120 million educated women without a job received one, The Print reports, the share of workers with secondary-level education would increase to 46 percent from the current figure of just 33 percent. Yet, in the last decade, women’s participation in the workforce has stagnated at best and, at worst, declined. 

This is not for lack of willingness on women’s part to enter the workforce. Their participation would jump to almost eighty percent if every woman willing to take up a paid job were to receive one. Despite this, labour participation for women stands at a mere 23 percent. Only Saudi Arabia records fewer women in the workplace than India among the G20 nations.

Women who work in India face a gender wage gap, a threat to gender equality in the country.

There is a clear economic incentive for India to mobilise its working-age female population but numerous barriers rooted in sex discrimination stand in its way. Societal attitudes which disapprove of women who work and a belief that starting a family ought to be prioritised before starting a career are among the issues which hold India back in mobilising its working age female population. 

Furthermore, there is often systemic gender bias within the workplace. There is a wage gap in India, with women earning on average between 35 percent and 85 percent of their male counterparts’ wages depending on the field of work and education level. Women are, as a report published last year pointed out, “highly over-represented in the low value-added industries as well as occupations, such as agriculture, textiles, and domestic service.”

In some sectors the wage gap is closing but it is still there. The fact that women account for the overwhelming majority of unpaid care work and a lack of employment opportunities for them exacerbates the issue and furthers the economic loss sex discrimination is inflicting on India. 

Nirmala Sitharaman, who was appointed as India’s first full-time Finance Minister earlier this year. Despite taking steps towards political empowerment of women, the country is still dogged by a gender imbalance and sex discrimination which excludes many women from the workplace. Image credit: Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr – Archive: U.S. Secretary of Defense [CC BY 2.0 (]
This is to say nothing of India’s sex ratio, which is heavily imbalanced and means that the country is missing 63 million girls and women. Cultural preferences for sons over daughters means that there are fewer women than there should be, thanks to practices such as sex-selective abortion (which is illegal but remains widespread) and even infanticide as the recent case of a newborn girl buried alive in Uttar Pradesh shows. When this is combined with the gender norms by which women are often expected to abide, the factors contributing to the hampered ability of women to participate in paid work become increasingly apparent. 

Sex discrimination in India points to a contrast within the country of the status of women and girls at different levels of the socioeconomic ladder. Think of political empowerment. Nirmala Sitharaman became the country’s Union Finance Minister earlier this year – the first woman to hold the position full-time and the second woman to hold it overall. A woman has served as Prime Minister of India and as President of India. Sixteen women in thirteen states have served as Chief Ministers. In addition, when discussing the workforce, it is worth noting that six Indian female billionaires featured in this year’s Forbes list of the world’s richest people. Yet, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2013, “modern India somehow manages to be, at the same time, the land of Indira Gandhi and Mother Theresa and of child brides and dowry deaths.” 

Women on a subway train. Commuting to and from work is a costly and time-consuming exercise for many Indian female workers.

Yet sexism and misogyny continue to be spectres hovering over Indian society. India’s continued imbalanced sex ratio is indicative of this; the same is true of the absence of women in the workplace, restrictions on abortion which drive many to seek them out in unsafe environments, and a relative epidemic of sexual violence in the country which commentators have linked to systemic bias and prejudice. The fear of violence and abuse, too, frustrates women’s efforts to enter the workforce. As The Print points out, safety is a major concern for female workers who have to commute. 

“More often than not, when Indian women decide to take up work, the calculation includes an additional item: The cost of safe travel,” The Print writes. “A typical educated, urban working woman with a child loses over fifteen percent of [her] salary to the gender pay gap and about one-sixth to childcare. Her commute is more expensive than her male counterparts, because she chooses safer options like grabbing a taxi at night from the train station to her home, rather than walking. For a woman, the act of working is an expensive one.” 

It is clear that the failure to open up pathways for women to enter the workforce is taking a financial toll. At a time when the government is seeking to empower girls and women, addressing the employment gap and issues therein are essential for the nation’s societal and economic good.

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