What women need to participate in the changing world of work

The world of work is changing rapidly – technology, innovation, the climate crisis, and demographic shifts are some of the important drivers for the future of work. What would it take, then, to ensure that the future of work is responsive to women’s needs and aspirations, particularly in a country like India? The answer lies in conceptualizing and implementing deliberate and corrective measures to narrow the gender gap and social inequities.

Women’s labor force participation rate in India is as low as 25.1% compared to 57.5% for men (PLFS 2020-21). They are disproportionately represented in agriculture and allied sectors, personal services such as beauty parlors, salons and tailoring units and in public employment arenas, including education and health services. Women engaged in entrepreneurship are also concentrated primarily in low-income, nano and home-based enterprises with little aspirations for growth.

The 2019 MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs shows that gender gaps in entrepreneurship have worsened in India, especially during the pandemic. Female Entrepreneurial Activity rate in comparison to men registered a fall of 21.9% from 79.6 to 62.1% between 2018 and 2019. Their choice of occupation, ability to enter the labor market or entrepreneurship and continue with remunerative work is often determined by social norms, and the need to bear a disproportionate burden of domestic and care work in their households.

The gender pay gap in India remains high compared to international standards, with men earning 2.5 times more than women for the same job (Oxfam 2022). The effective social protection coverage in India is close to only 24% (World Social Protection Report 2017-2019). As women are largely engaged in the informal economy in India, their access to various social protection measures is also less than their male counterparts. Thus, providing universal social protection, upskilling women, supporting their shift from informal to formal work and promoting entrepreneurship are essential to reduce their vulnerability and ensure decent working conditions.

Given the rapid technological reforms, specific measures are needed to consciously include and empower women and girls. As per the latest estimates by National Family Health Survey-5, only 33.3% of women (aged 15-49 years) have used the internet as opposed to 57.1% of men in the same age group. Women in India are 56% less likely to use mobile internet than males, as per the Mobile Gender Gap report (GSMA 2019).

The Crime in India Report 2021 reveals that overall reported crimes against women have increased by 15.3% in the past year, with a steady increase in cybercrimes. Increasing women and girls’ access to digital devices and building their digital skills while ensuring robust policies for the prevention and redressal of instances of online gender-based violence is paramount. This is especially relevant to realizing the prime minister’s vision of creating a flexible work ecosystem and expanding women’s choices to pursue different career trajectories in keeping with their aspirations.

Tech-enabled emerging sectors that provide avenues for flexible work through the gig and platform economy can also boost women’s participation, though they are largely restricted to urban settings. Besides, they have inadequate social protection cover, and opportunities for collective bargaining and dispute resolution. There is growing policy attention on extending social protection to gig and platform workers, and the hope is that other concerns will be addressed sooner than later. In rural areas, non-traditional livelihood opportunities are encouraged and promoted under national programs such as the National Rural Economic Transformation Project (NRETP), under the ministry of rural development, which aspires to support women-led enterprise development by enabling access to finance, building markets and networks, and generating employment opportunities. The NRETP is being implemented across 13 states to support 80,000 rural enterprises by June 2023.

The National Education Policy 2020 recognizes that with the rise of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, many unskilled jobs (typically dominated by women) may be automated, while the need for a skilled workforce, particularly involving mathematics, computer science, and data science, in conjunction with the sciences, social sciences, and humanities would be required in the future. There are less than 30% of women in the field of Engineering and Technology in India (AISHE 2019-20). The pathways for women in STEM lies in creating an enabling environment at the school level and in challenging biases related to what is traditionally associated with male capabilities.

As per the latest data, the Gross Enrollment Ratio for girls drops from 101.1 at elementary levels to 58.2 at higher secondary levels (UDISE 2021-22) and further declines to 27.3 at higher education levels (AISHE 2019-20). Only 53.6% of schools in India have an integrated science lab facility. Close to 14% of schools are yet to have a functional electricity connection, and 54% of schools do not have functional computer facilities (UDISE 2021-22). Since secondary education is not free, there is a push for girls to attend resource-poor government secondary schools, while boys are sent to private schools (albeit the quality of education imparted varies). Therefore, increasing public investment in education, especially at the secondary level, will have far-reaching implications for girls’ entry into higher education and STEM careers.

Furthermore, the future of work holds immense potential for women’s entry into other non-traditional livelihoods that remain to be explored to their full potential. Vocational Education and Training is often seen as a vehicle for improving the labor market outcomes of vulnerable communities and marginalized groups. Increasing awareness to encourage uptake, ensuring gender-responsive infrastructure at Skill Training Institutes and ITIs, matching skills with aspirations, increasing stipend amounts, expanding apprenticeship opportunities and improving monitoring mechanisms to prevent scheme leakages are some aspects are likely to help women’s employments transitions .

Finally, increasing public investment in household and care infrastructure, including cooking gas, piped water, electricity, care services for children, the elderly and the disabled and parental leave policies to support the redistribution of unpaid care work would help women mold themselves to this rapidly changing world of work.

A lot of hinges on enhancing budgetary allocations for social sector schemes, gender-responsive planning and budgeting practices and addressing bottlenecks to implementation. Equally important are employer policies to create decent working conditions, wage parity and upward mobility avenues for women. It is time women got their fair share in India’s growth trajectory in return for their contribution to the economy. This can be made possible through concerted efforts by many stakeholders, including government, academia, civil society, the private sector and most importantly, women.

Shreya Ghosh is Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager at IWWAGE, and Preethi Rao is an Associate Director, LEAD at Krea University

The views expressed are personal

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