Women's labour force participation in India: Why is it so low?

This is % of women’s participation in the workforce in India.


Thankfully we have bounced back a little in the last two years, but we are still way below even a country like Bangladesh, which probably has similar demographics.

So I have had questions on this for a long time. This conversation almost always comes up if you put a bunch of folks from the for-profit sector in a room and talk about what can be done to grow India’s GDP - increase women’s participation in the workforce.

Does anyone know why it is so low, or more importantly, why it has dropped in the last 25 years? It is counterintuitive.

Also, almost every conversation I have been in with Orgs in the social sector seems to suggest otherwise and that women probably contribute to the household more than men.

What is the right way to look at all of this?


Hi @Uthara, will be nice to get your thoughts on this. I remember our call along with rest of the Foundation team last year where you touched upon this briefly.

this is a can of worms.

if we don’t think of it in terms of ‘paid’ or ‘unpaid’, women take on more work than men. true not just for the Asian/developing nations, but globally including in developed countries.

Since we are limiting this discussion to paid labpourforce, in my view, the problem starts before women even come into the labourforce: school dropout rates are higher for girls, college enrolment is lower for girls, skill development opportunities and participation skewed in favour of men (@rishmunk can offer insights from his navgurukul experience), women are conditioned to take on ‘safe’ jobs + most manufacturing jobs default go to men even if can be done by women - also because women have household responsibilities, may not be able to do extra shifts/continuous 8-hour shifts.

women in the formal (white-collar) workforce are ‘deprived opportunities’ or thought of as liabilities when they get married+give birth (multiple anecdotes to share, including my own) while not being paid equally for the same position/skill sets, have to choose between paying attention to childcare or office rat race, and then the big one: household responsibilities & caregiving are conditioned to be women’s jobs - often with very little continuous support. (I also wonder if this is probably why not too many married women have/are able to make time to exercise…)



@Bhuvan just shared this

We must differentiate between unpaid contributions to the household and paid work in the public sphere.



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I was a part of an accelerator programme (mooc) designed to “Uplift women startups owners by providing tools to amplify their entrepreneurial skills’. 11,500 of us signed up and from an active 7000, only 21% completed the course. The industry average is 7%.

I did spend some time with the team to understand why so many women dropped out of this free online course that kept us engaged through online forums, discussions, telegram groups, live sessions etc.

The team said that women from Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities faced very similar challenges, their professional development clashed with their ‘daily activities/duties’.
As women are considered the primary caregivers to both the young and the aged, they drop off from the workforce when they get married/ have children/need to take care of the elderly.
This career break brings about a lack of confidence, diffidence and a lack of motivation.

This echoes what Indira Nooyi once said “The biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. Total, complete conflict. When you have to have kids you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers, they need you for the teenage years. And as you grow even more, your parents need you because they’re aging.”

My observation is that it boils down to 4 areas:

  1. Family support - it takes a village to raise a child.

  2. Organisational support - I believe that job flexibility and remote work for everyone who needs it should be entirely routine. This will give families the chance to take care of home life obligations during the workday without feeling loaded with emotional consequences.

  3. Female mentorship - “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Female mentorship is very important for women who want to get back to the workforce.

  4. Financial assistance made available through grants that are accessible once milestones are reached. This is more of a carrot and stick approach that incubators follow - it works as it motivates women to work towards a goal. It also gives them a sense of accomplishment.

  5. Company Policy - Hire and support more women.

I’ve also come across some interesting articles that showed an increase in the workforce during covid and a sudden drop as soon as things started returning to normal.

Here’s a good article that explore the stats further:


Hello there,

+++ to all other replies, just adding to a few things I found while conducting some FGDs for an NGO on a report on youth aspirations for learning, livelihoods and citizenship.

  1. Many young women (all unmarried) felt that they had very limited options to pursue their education/livelihoods in terms of geography and money. Parents were very unlikely to send their daughters to another city for education or even for a good job. They were also unwilling to spend a lot on their education. Most young women said that their parents invested much more in their brother’s education.

  2. Women in the age group of 22-30 all mentioned that they had this crazy pressure from their families to get married and leave their jobs after marriage. Mind you, all these women belong to tier 1,2 and 3 cities. Even I was surprised to hear this again and again in my FGDs.

  3. Women’s aspirations from a very young age were shaped in a way that they were encouraged to think of themselves as home-makers and mothers. Their confidence was I believe systematically never allowed to develop. Excerpt from our report -

" The confidence that survey respondents had that they could achieve their aspirations correlated with the gender of the respondent (p<.001). Male respondents demonstrated a higher confidence to achieve their aspirations (70% very confident, 26% somewhat confident), while female respondents were more likely than men to feel only somewhat confident (52% very confident, 38% somewhat confident). "

  1. Mobility- Many studies have shown that in India, the lack of safe, cheap and reliable public transportation severely affects women’s career choices.

These points were just to add to the most pressing points about the inequality in household chores, parenting etc.


Some of the points below have data/research behind them which you can find online. I am summarising my understanding.

There are a complex set of social and economic factors that affects women’s ability and decision to participate in workforce.

  1. There is usually a negative relationship between female employment and income of the male household members. When men in the family start to earn more, women in workforce decreases in those families.

  2. Employed women in India face a penalty in the marriage market. They are less likely to receive proposals from potential suitors in India especially North India.

  3. There is a gendered division of labour in Indian agricultural. Female labour are more likely to be utilised in tasks that require precision (sowing, transplanting, and weeding). With mechanisation and usage of chemicals, many of these tasks do not need labour anymore.

  4. While men who exited agriculture have found jobs in other sectors – particularly construction and services – women have not. Lack of access to jobs near ones home and lower female mobility (due to lack of security, lack of reliable transport, norms around household responsibilities etc) restricts women’s access to non-farm jobs since these are available mostly farther away from villages.

  5. India has a younger population. Women with younger children tend to not work outside of home due to care duties and older children provide a substitute for mother’s time. Given this, maybe in the last decade with more kids being younger, women chose to be at home and not at work.

  6. When a country moves on the ladder of development, there is a transition phase where the female workforce participation decreases for a certain time. This has happened in many, now developed countries.

  7. Though there is economic growth in the country, it is not in sectors or jobs which can readily absorb women.

  8. Mismeasurement of female workforce participation in rural areas. IN all our survey’s many women call themselves “housewife” while they should identify themselves are farmers or animal husbandry workers.

P.S. - The men, the patriarch, the culture doesn’t want Indian women to women outside of the house/makes it difficult for Indian women to make that choice, though in many cases they will not be explicit in their opinion. Writing this now since I felt I was being PC in my points above :slight_smile:


In addition to the comments here, I want to bring about an old perspective that needs a new lens.

Renowned economist Devaki Jain spoke about the unsung Women’s movement in India. In 1933, way before our Independence or the Planning Commission, a group of women like Kamala Devi, Aruna Asaf Ali, sat together and drafted the Women’s plan for India. There was a Women’s Indian Association (WIA) where women took up the role of visibilizing and incentivizing woman’s work, but unfortunately, their stories and their work weren’t recognized as it should’ve and didn’t get the inclusion it deserved in the intellectual discourse of the time.

Let’s see this problem closer by taking a real example. In Karnataka, silkworm rearing is an important source of livelihood for women. However, majority of the tasks involved would take place within the confines of the household and thus the women’s labor was not counted. But the visibility wasn’t the only loss. While conducting the task of silk rearing, women were exposed to multiple physical, chemical, and biological agents, that became a serious risk owing to working conditions. But if the home isn’t seen as a workplace and the task/condition isn’t counted as labor, women end up losing out on basic health benefits and suffer from these “unpaid household tasks”.

Women’s workforce participation in India has dropped from 45% to 27% from 2005 to 2019. Loss of jobs in agriculture (approximately 80% of the net 46 million jobs lost in agriculture over the last 13 years have been lost by women) and low participation in new and high-growth industries (e.g., logistics, warehousing, field sales) are the key reasons for the drop. Agriculture is unlikely to recover the lost jobs, but increasing women’s participation in high-growth industries can contribute to greater agency for women, delayed age of marriage, higher investment in children’s health and education and faster gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

One such effort of notice is the GLOW initiative, that seeks to empower more than one million women from low-income households by providing them with opportunities in high-growth industries.

Since the project’s inception in 2020, 5,753 women have been placed in jobs across 3 industries. In a year, GLOW expanded women’s employment in 18 partner companies by around 2,500. The Logistics and Flexi-staffing sectors saw an increase of 5,753 jobs for women with 3,103 being placed in jobs in 2022-23. Over 30 gender-inclusive practices were created to tackle women’s hiring challenges, with around 14 practices successfully piloted, such as hiring women frontline recruiters and targeting single women for last mile delivery. Intensive research in the impact areas gave valuable insights into women’s job preferences, motivations, and obstacles were gained. Research indicates that despite societal barriers, 33% of nonworking women aspire to work due to increased education and self. confidence. Over 90% of women work to support personal, family expenses and non-working women show a stronger preference for jobs over entrepreneurship.

While millions of jobs are added by high-growth industries (e-commerce, warehousing) women remain excluded here. This is because employment preferences & economic benefits of hiring women are unknown. The reality is that a gender-diverse workforce is good for business and great for the country but the ecosystem lacks capacity & capability to be gender equitable.

Transition can’t always be seen from the larger lens. It is these small efforts that come will together to form the view that those women in 1933 had drawn out. As this journey is underway, it requires persistent efforts from diverse stakeholders to forge the path forward and establish a gender-equitable workforce in India.

More from the GLOW Initiative here:

  1. Main Report and its findings
  2. Rural Research Findings
  3. Urban Research Findings

I can confirm the on-gound impact of the reduction in women’s labour in Agriculture. Most of the women’s contribution to Agriculture is fully automated.

However, as much I can recall, there is a sharp drop in Women’s labour force participation in Urban India as well. And apart from all the factors, men’s contribution in unpaid work can increase women’s labour by a minimum of high single-digit. Especially in the case when according to the recent survey by The Ken highlighted - 95% of working mom has the guilt of not being up to expectations.

I wrote about this last week: https://www.sumanjha.com/post/if-you-have-guilts-i-don-t-know-how-the-rest-of-us-should-feel

The decline in women’s workforce participation over the past 25 years is a multifaceted issue that can’t be attributed to a single cause. Factors such as cultural norms, societal expectations, lack of access to quality education and job opportunities, workplace biases, and inadequate support systems for working mothers can all contribute to this phenomenon.

We have been running experiments focused on the problem “inadequate support systems for working mothers” & it is actually working. Irrespective of the sectors, certain jobs ( tele calls, services, desk jobs) should be reserved for women or preference should be given for women. Training for remote work and flexibility to work from anywhere will drive women participation up. Language is not a barrier anymore as in a country like India companies catering to domestic consumption require larger workforce who speak local languages. I have tend to realise from our own experience that even though woman have a need for additional income source, they pull back because they don’t prefer to venture out of their homes. Remote work training can drive participation up and also for companies it reduces attrition significantly.

I would like to give an honest take from my own anecdotal experience. Some will not find it politically correct.
I work in the MSME unorganized textile industry segment. The work here on a daily basis has verbal abuses and physical assaults on laborers. That’s mirrored everywhere in 70% of Indian industries. It’s quite saddening, that women are subjected to more harassment than men. ‘Seth culture’ has destroyed equity in India. Some of the women who do work are given menial jobs, paid lower than the men for the same. This is for unskilled labor doing manual work on factory floors. Women are then expected to cook for their households and take care of the kids.

As for skilled labor, I hired a digital marketing assistant for the trading segment. She couldn’t take the workplace for a week and left. Her exit interview was for many reasons, but one of them was she would get stared at by everyone in the office all the time. There were old uncles, managers, helpers, everyone. For a woman to fight against everything is very hard in this country, it’s easier to just ignore and stay back in one place. I liked her work even for one week, and I found her a job at my friend’s company. It would be easier to delete Indian culture and restart a whole new race than to try and educate the current one to abandon their thinking and become better.

There are safety factors, cultural factors, and a lot more. But none of it is unwillingness to work, or competency. We have a lot of work ahead of us as a society.

We faced this issue at EBTL as well.

The villagers had a problem that we were paying the women as much as the men. It took them a while to make peace with the idea.

@VarunBal, no issues now, right?

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When we first implemented it, most of the villagers were surprised. From the village where we hire our people, there was not so much of backlash to be honest. It was just the real estate agent who we take help from that kept ‘warning’ us to not do it. No other land owner directly came up and raised issues.

Over time everybody has seen that the village has directly benefited from this.

The only issue if at all we have faced is that, it’s very difficult to get any workers on a monthly scale for ‘not so hard’ jobs like nursery work or house keeping for the earlier salaries that were the standards locally.

Also another factor at ebtl is that, almost all the men are employed in the construction work right now. We’ll have to see post construction, when the work gets limited, who from a family opts to come.


Was there any change/increase in number of women coming to work after implementing equal pay?

We did it right from the start. Hence we didn’t have a comparison.
Generally they are eager to come to the land to work.

Some useful insights for People following this thread! Indian Context*

Soure: NITI Aayog SDG India Index & Dashboard, world bank, state of discrimination report by Trayas ( March 2022)

I was at an event yesterday where Professor Ahuja From Cornell University mentioned that almost 50% of all women workers in India are in Tamilnadu. Was researching this and found this.

Of the 1.6 million women workers across India, 0.68 million (43 per cent) were working in the factories of Tamil Nadu alone. In fact, nearly three-fourths (72 per cent) of all women working in industries were employed in the four southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala,” Dhruvika Dhamija, the author of the CEDA paper, has observed in her paper.


This interesting figure reminds me of Sir GD Naidu and his amazing work. It’s amazing how big a role this one man had in elevating the Coimbatore region’s automotive capability.

He started the first polytechnic college in India to skill the then-youth(1950s) to learn real-world skills in the automotive industry.

A good weekend watch to learn about the great man:


Certainly, here’s a different perspective:

Embracing the Diversity of Women’s Choices. Every woman should have the freedom to choose her own path as an individual. It shouldn’t be turned into a societal trend or the sole “right” way to live in the world. I believe that raising two children and nurturing them is a full-time responsibility, not just about reproduction. It’s about shaping the future generation. The world of tomorrow will be shaped by the kind of mothers we have today.

When I ask many women what they do, they often say, “I’m just a housewife.” I tell them, “Why do you say ‘just’? Don’t underestimate the significance of nurturing two or three new lives.” It’s a crucial role. My own mother never explicitly told me, “I love you,” but her dedication to us was evident in everything she did. Her life was dedicated to creating an environment for us to thrive in. And I can’t imagine my life without her presence.

Although my mother didn’t actively shape who I am, the atmosphere she created was fundamental to my growth. She invested her life in setting up that atmosphere, knowing it would play a role in my development. This was the most vital contribution she made. Why would anyone think this isn’t important? In my early years, I didn’t have to worry about anything because she ensured the foundation was strong.

Today, our world is overly focused on economics. Money is a means to acquire necessities. Men focused on procurement while women delved into life’s more beautiful aspects. However, now women are also driven to procure. If there’s an economic need in the family, it’s fine for a woman to work – but it shouldn’t be considered superior. Whether she sings, plays music, cooks, or simply loves her children, she lives beautifully, like a flower. That’s sufficient.

We shouldn’t judge a woman’s worth solely by her ability to earn money. If there’s an economic necessity or if she’s passionate about working, she can and should pursue it. But we mustn’t establish these values as superior in society. Such a perspective would hinder societal progress, prioritizing survival over the aesthetics and beauty of life.

In general, people often work to meet their financial needs. However, there are cases where individuals work out of passion for their endeavors. While some individuals find satisfaction in their work, for many, work is primarily driven by the need for financial gain. Therefore, if there arises a financial requirement within a family, it is entirely acceptable for women to engage in employment or contribute by working from home.

The central question is not whether women should work or not, but rather whether such a need exists. If the requirement has shifted from being purely financial to social in nature, it may not be necessary for every woman to work. The vision behind the rapid technological advancements in today’s world is to eventually create a society where neither men nor women are compelled to work and can enjoy their lives more fully. Unfortunately, many people continue to work out of a sense of compulsive action, unsure of other ways to occupy themselves. This circumstance is less than ideal.

In the context of women, there has been a significant push in the last few decades for every woman to pursue a career. This movement stems from the exploitation that some women experienced due to their financial dependence on men. In response, many women felt that entering the workforce was the only solution. However, such exploitation is not a universal reality, and it doesn’t apply to all families. The notion that a woman’s worth is measured by her earnings has been influenced by traditional male perspectives. In striving for women’s liberation, there’s a risk of adopting values that don’t genuinely align with their unique qualities. This can inadvertently lead to a form of enslavement. True freedom for women involves avoiding the absorption of male-centric values and instead finding ways to amplify their feminine qualities, cultivating a presence that’s as delicate and captivating as a flower.

Exploring a Life Beyond Self-Care
The beauty of the world isn’t solely derived from financial success. Whether on an individual level, within families, communities, or the global community, beauty emerges when a few individuals extend themselves beyond personal interests to make a positive impact. This altruistic perspective is what elevates the world.

Drawing from personal experience, my own mother never pursued work outside the home, and my father never considered it necessary for her to do so. However, this didn’t render her insignificant. On the contrary, she was indispensable. Without her contributions, our family would not have thrived. Her dedication, her selflessness toward her children and husband, has profoundly shaped us.

Her devotion and commitment to our well-being, her unwavering support and tireless efforts, were all carried out with love as the driving force. She wasn’t enslaved by these responsibilities; she undertook them joyfully because of her profound affection. To label her contributions as exploitation would have been an affront to her, as they were expressions of her deep love.

The Beauty of Altruism
The true beauty of the world doesn’t stem from monetary gains alone. Whether on an individual, familial, communal, or global scale, beauty arises from the actions of those who go beyond personal well-being, motivated by a genuine desire to make a difference. This is the essence of what makes the world beautiful.

A family serves as the fundamental building block of any community. If this sense of altruism isn’t nurtured within a family, it’s unlikely to thrive elsewhere. Instilling this perspective of love and dedication in children from an early age is paramount.

However, it’s worth noting that a woman need not abandon these values if she chooses to work. If there’s a genuine need to contribute financially, she should certainly pursue it. Using my mother as an example again, she didn’t join the workforce, yet she ensured that she made valuable contributions at home, eliminating the need to purchase certain items.

Throughout my childhood, until I left my family’s home, I never encountered a pillow without a touch of embroidery. Whether it was a small parrot or a delicate flower, my mother’s handiwork adorned these pillows. This seemingly simple gesture has had an enduring impact on my life. While my father could have easily purchased decorative pillows, my mother’s touch made a significant difference. Her contribution, whether financial or practical, was valuable.

Hence, how a woman decides to function within her family is deeply individual. There’s no universal philosophy dictating that all women should work or that all women should remain at home. The key lies in embracing one’s unique qualities, aligning personal choices with values, and cultivating a sense of purpose that goes beyond convention.

Investigating the diminished participation of women in India’s workforce parallels delving into the limited number of men engaged in culinary endeavors within the country. In both instances, we observe the impact of deep-seated cultural norms, historical roles, and societal expectations associated with specific genders.


An important discussion on female participation in labour force in India.

I recently learnt from an IDR piece that, “Agriculture has highest estimated percentage distribution of female workers (63%) followed by manufacturing as per the Annual Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) Report 2021-22”.

It is estimated that there are 1.5 times more women working in the agriculture sector than men (in % terms - please refer data from the Ministry for Labour and Employment here)!

The irony is only ~2% of India’s agriculture land is owned by women - they are seen as cultivators and not land owners.

As per Ireena Vittal, women farmers need to be made visible - currently her labour cost is not accounted / costed for, leading to lack of agency and empowerment (imagine the impact on wealth creation and balance sheet of the family).

Do hear this podcast by IDR to know more.