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Women in the Indian Economy

Analyzing women’s representation in the Indian economy by using reports released by The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), India. (last updated in July 2019)


Shaardhool Shreenath


Unemployment figures have increased greatly in the recent past reaching about 21% - 23% as of May 2020 according to CMIE. However, these figures do not provide a gender disaggregated view. Women’s workforce participation rates in particular have always been low, even in the pre pandemic economy. While many studies have observed this decline overall, how accurate are the numbers? Does it factor in all paid and unpaid work done by women in an economy?


According to a Deloitte Report titled Empowering Women and Girls in India, “The female labour force participation in India has dropped from 36.7% in 2005 to 26% in 2018.” In other words, the labour force ratio of women to men is 1:4 i.e. there is only one female labourer for every four male labourers. In the last decade, women’s workforce participation ratio has significantly declined. This report will be comparing two annual reports released by The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), India, to understand this decline better.


The PLFS releases records of the total worker population ratio as well as the employment rates for both rural and urban areas annually. The Worker Population Ratio (WPR) estimates the number of people above the age of 15 who are available for work or are willing to work. On the other hand, the Employment Rate (ER) gives us an idea of how many people are actually working and actively contributing to the economy.


In Figure 1, by comparing the WPR for 2011-12 and 2018-19, we see that there is a drop in the overall WPR percentage. Rural areas have seen a sharper fall in WPR.


In Figure 2 again, there is a drop in the overall WPR percentage, but the percentage ratio of women labourers from rural areas has seen a significantly sharper decline. This would indicate that there are lesser women available for work or are willing to work in rural areas.



The PLFS report measures Employment Rate by dividing the labour force into three categories – Self-Employed, Daily Wage/Regular Salaried workers and Casual Labourers. In Figure 3, there is a percentage increase in the number of rural male workers and rural female workers who are self-employed, this could imply that new entrepreneurs and businessmen are coming up in rural areas. However, urban spaces have seen a fall in the percentage of self- employed labourers of which the most significant are urban women. This poses a problem, as in 2011-12, the percentage of self-employed urban women was rather higher than self-employed urban men. The drastic difference could be caused by many factors including immeasurability or increasingly dominant/patriarchal hierarchies and workspaces.




On the other hand, we see that there is a drastic increase in the percentage of regular wage/salaried women labourers in urban and rural spaces in Figure 4. By comparing this to the percentage of self-employed urban women, we could infer that urban spaces are allowing women to participate and contribute to businesses more but are restricting them from setting up their own business or helping move up the workplace hierarchy. In rural areas however, the percentage of salaried employees is very low for both genders. This could be because of the larger population of self-employed and casual labourers. That being said, the percentage of regular wage workers has gone up significantly for both genders.




Another category measured by the PLFS is Casual Labourers or contract employees who constitute a major proportion of the labour force. While in urban spaces, casual labourers are a minority, in rural areas, they form the majority. In Figure 5, we see a drastic fall in the number of rural male casual labourers, which could imply a shift into other forms of employment. However, the decline isn’t as drastic for female casual labourers in rural areas. In urban spaces however, we see a slight increase in the number of male casual labourers which could be due to better employment opportunities or infrastructural developments and a very small decline in the percentage of female casual labourers.




While the Periodic Labour Force Report has been the primary resource to estimate employment rates and understand workforce ratios, it fails to treat all contributors in an economy equally. Women’s contribution especially is overlooked in many cases. “In the case of India, the time-use survey can provide improved estimates of and better information, particularly capturing women’s participation in informal employment, including subsistence production.”, writes Indira Hirway and Sunny Jose in their paper Understanding Women’s Work Using Time-Use Statistics : The Case of India.


While statisticians have always managed to show the effect of the economy on all genders, they’ve failed to show how the economy is affected by all genders. For instance, women’s work at home is often dismissed for being un-measurable, this has led to the formation of an economic movement which focuses on including these un-measurable aspects of the economy.


“In India there is a prominent feminist economic movement which aims to look at all economic aspects in a gender-neutral perspective. Estimating the impact of informal employment on the economy is also part of this.”, said Professor Ruchira Sen, Assistant Professor at JGU, who’s also done extensive research on Gender and the Economy.


(Edited by Ishita Dang and Isha Chincholkar)

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