Social norms keep Indian women out of labour market; focus on behaviour change, non-cognitive skills could bring turnaround

Female labour-force participation (LFP) in India has been declining over the last decade. This was even before the recent kerfuffle over the NSSO jobs report. Analysis of previous NSSO rounds shows that the Indian labour market lost 1.96 crore women workforce between 2004 and 2011 and 53 percent of this drop occurred in rural India.

There is no similar trend for male LFP, suggesting that the boom in economic growth and development in recent years may be characterised by disparate outcomes for men and women. Dwindling female LFP in the backdrop of increasing female education and household incomes suggests that the decision to leave the labour market is not a straightforward one. To a large extent, the decision (and the autonomy to make them) hinges on a number of communal, familial and cultural norms.

Social norms keep Indian women out of labour market; focus on behaviour change, non-cognitive skills could bring turnaround

Representational image. Reuters

“When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women” is a statement to which participants in the World Values Survey (WVS) are asked to respond. The respondents are asked to agree, disagree, or neither. One of the key values this question attempts to capture is the emancipative value of women in the domain of employment. Arguably, the more you disagree with this, the higher the value you place on women’s empowerment and emancipation when it comes to employment and work.

Using global data on WVS and LFP, we correlate responses to the WVS question on labour force participation with male and female LFP across countries.  A higher value on the scale here implies more emancipative value towards women in jobs and vice versa. We find that the measures seem to be negatively correlated with male LFP, and positively with female LFP. However, this does not appear to be the case across countries. For instance, in South Africa, the value appears to be neither correlated with male or female LFP.

Figure 1: Emancipative value for women — jobs with male and female LFP globally (average percentages across countries)

Source: Using averaged values from WVS (1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014) and LFP data from World Bank Data Bank (1994, 1997, 2001, 2006, 2011) an average of the scale over time was computed.

Source: Using averaged values from WVS (1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014) and LFP data from World Bank Data Bank (1994, 1997, 2001, 2006, 2011) an average of the scale over time was computed.

Looking closer at India, and using data from the national employment-unemployment surveys, we map state-wise data on LFP in Figure 2 (below). Apart from a few states (notably the northeastern states such as Nagaland, Tripura, and Mizoram), female LFP is indeed on the decline. Data from the NSSO also shows larger fluctuations over time in the female LFP figures compared to the stable trends that we see in male LFP.

Figure 2: Male and female LFP in India (percentage across states and years)

How does this compare with the WVS measure? We ran a simple correlational analysis to show the overall correlation between the two variables. In the case of Indian states, it would appear that the average emancipative value for jobs (over time) for women is not significantly associated with female LFP, but is negatively associated with that of male LFP (as we saw in the country-wise comparisons). However, when we disaggregate the data into year-level aggregates for each state, we find a positive correlation between female LFP and emancipative values across states as observed in the country-level statistics.

Consider, a few states where a strong positive correlation exists (ie, a higher value on the scale is associated, over time, with a higher female LFP). These are the southern states that typically have distinct cultural beliefs and social norms about women working: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. There are a few notable outliers: Punjab, Jharkhand, Delhi, and Bihar — part of the low female LFP could be explained by a lower sex ratio. This could imply that regardless of the emancipative value attached to females working, rising above the India average (for example) may only be possible over a much longer time period. Similarly, Chhattisgarh has a high sex ratio and could explain its higher female LFP despite a low score on the emancipative values scale.

How can social norms be adapted or even leveraged to encourage the economic participation of women? Luckily, there is mounting evidence of a cost-effective way to do this within India and abroad. For instance, providing men information to correct their inaccurate beliefs in Saudi Arabia increased their wives’ participation in the labour market.

Another measure is to provide women with the opportunity to improve their negotiation skills as was done by a team of researchers in Zambia. The adolescent girls targeted in this study were able to bargain with their parents to do household chores at less conflicting times and improve their investment in education.

Evidence from Uttar Pradesh has shown that increasing women’s self-efficacy increases their labour participation which in turn increases their self-efficacy.

It is also important to increase the perceived value of women’s labour hours by providing households with better information about employment opportunities for women. Awareness and availability of recruitment services led to more women opting into the labour market, schooling and post-school training and delaying marriage and children.

Behaviour change communication has proven to be successful through classroom intervention multiple times in the Indian context whether it is gender equality workshops in Haryana or afterschool training in Maharashtra. Finally, evidence has suggested that television media in India has not been as effective as in Latin America: programmes like Hum Log (1984) appear to have had limited impact on changing gender norms. However, recent shows such as Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (2014) could offer more insights.

At present, the national labour policy discourse is inordinately focussed on skilling and placements, without addressing the gender gaps in the job market. Women-oriented job-roles in vocational training schemes perpetuate the same gendering that excludes women from the industries experiencing job growth. Behaviour change communication, improving bargaining power (non-cognitive skill training) and correcting societal beliefs deserves further prioritisation in labour policy design.

Sneha Menon is co-founder and researcher at InsightsApplied and Anirudh Tagat is research author at the Department of Economics, Monk Prayogshala in Mumbai

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 19:19:14 IST

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