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India’s urban work boom is leaving women behind

Typical day for women workers in Mumbai. Anthony Devlin/PA

Nearly 400m people live in cities in India and during the next 40 years that number will more than double. Not only is the proportion of India’s total female population that is economically active among the lowest in the world, but urban areas do even worse.

New analysis of data from the 2011 census shows only half as many urban women work as their rural counterparts.

Few states – including Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – do worse than India when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce. Others such as Somalia, Bahrain and Malaysia do much better. Among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which are comparable emerging economies, India has the lowest female participation rate, with only 29% of women over the age of 15 working. As the chart below shows, even among the MINT countries – Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia and Turkey – only Turkey has the same participation rate as India.


In mainly agricultural economies, urban women often find less work than rural ones. Half the working population in India is employed by the agricultural sector. But agriculture’s contribution to Indian economy has been steadily falling and is now less than half that of the services industry. This should have corresponded with rapid growth in numbers of working women in cities, but that hasn’t happened.

Economists have tried to understand this discrepancy. Some cite the problem to be India’s unemployment rate among the young, who make more than half of the population. But such joblessness should affect both men and women, and it also doesn’t explain the long-term trend of low women’s workforce participation rates. Others believe that younger people in cities are staying in education for longer. While that certainly contributes to the overall picture, it cannot explain the large difference between urban and rural figures.

Some discrepancy may arise because many women are involved in home-based work and are part of the informal sector, where their contribution tends to be under-reported. “Better enumeration will help, but measurement is not the only reason participation rates are so low in India, especially in urban areas,” Sher Verick, a senior fellow at the International Labour Organisation, said.

Patriarchy rules

According to Verick, the two main factors keeping women at home are social customs and very low education levels.

Breaking such customs is hard. Preet Rustagi, joint director of Institute for Human Development in Delhi, said: “To a certain extent, men control women’s lives. And women have internalised this as the norm. In such situations, the little work they do is the result of compulsion, such as when the household income is not enough, rather than choice.”

The power of social norms may be partially explained based on data from the city of Leicester in the UK, where one in four city-dwellers is of Indian background. According to a 2010 report by Sheffield Hallam University: “Economic activity rates among Indian women in Leicester are nine percentage points lower than for Indian women nationally.” In a large enough group of Indians, those social norms are more strongly held than when Indians are widely dispersed in the rest of the UK.

Although education levels have improved in recent decades, not as many educated women have found work.

“In India, there is a U-shaped relationship between education and participation of women in the workforce,” Verick said. “Illiterates participate more out of necessity. Women with a middle-level education (below graduate) have different aspirations and can afford to remain out of the workforce. Only better educated women have been ‘pulled’ into the labour force in response to better paid opportunities.”

Rustagi said a skills shortage among women is also to blame. “There is a large divide between what they can do and what jobs are on offer.” For instance, the lowest worker sex ratio is seen in construction, manufacturing and the retail trade, which are booming in cities.


The safety of women is also a concern in Indian cities, as was highlighted after the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. Better governance and improved policing ought to help, but urban India’s gender imbalance is a deeper cause for worry. The national average is 940 females per 1,000 males, but that drops to 912 for cities with a population larger than 1m. The imbalance is greater still in India’s biggest cities, with Delhi at 867 females per 1,000 males and Mumbai at 861.

The discrepancy in these figures may be partly explained by the mass migration of workers, mainly men, from rural to urban areas, according to Varsha Joshi, director of India’s census operations. But the drop is large enough that further investigation is needed to spot other reasons.

Empty promises

There are some positive signs. According to India’s National Sample Survey, the proportion of working women in urban areas has increased from 11.9% in 2001 to 15.4% in 2011. Rustagi said: “One of the fastest-growing sectors for urban working women has been domestic work. About 1.5m urban women were added to that sector in the last decade, which is more than one in ten jobs created for women in that time.”

But the areas that have shown the most significant growth, such as domestic work, tend to fall into the category of “informal” work – and under India’s labour laws, these workers have few workplace rights. This makes it harder for women to have sustainable jobs, let alone a career.

Indians go to the polls in April and, partly as a result of the focus of women’s issues, most parties have adopted promises about women’s empowerment as part of their campaigns, but none have spelt these promises out in any detail.

Related: The revolution for India’s urban women must start at home

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