Women’s presence in the workforce remains worryingly low in India, with a few instances of uptick negated time and again, a recent report by a private think tank shows. The situation is even direr for women in younger age groups, the survey notes

While female labour force participation rate (LPR) did show signs of recovery from its pandemic lows, the number of women entering the workforce has stalled or declined across most age groups during the first four months of 2022, shows a survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

In comparison, male LPR has seen marked recovery in major age groups during January-March 2022, compared with January-March 2020, before declining in the retirement age groups of 60-64 years and above 65 years.

While labour force participation — the proportion of the population that seeks employment — rises rapidly with age, this age distribution of the LPR is very different for men and women.

“For men, it is a well-formed inverted U-curve. For women it is a less well-formed inverted U-curve. Recent contortions to this curve indicate that a greater proportion of young women join the labour force but many more could be exiting the labour markets early, in their late 20s and early 30s and re-joining in the late 30s. This is different from the behaviour of men,” CMIE states in the latest iteration of its age-wise, gender-wise analysis of labour force participation.

The LPR for men rises from 6% in the 15-19 years age bracket to 46% in the 20-24 years bracket. Then it rises sharply to over 90%. The average LPR for men in the 25-59 years age groups is 95% and has always been over 90%, CMIE data shows. Evidently, most grown-up men do seek employment, the agency remarks.

Men begin to withdraw from the labour market in their early sixties, which is usually considering the retirement age in India. The LPR for men in the age group 60-64 years almost halves to 46% from the above 90% levels of twenties and thirties, dropping further to 13% for men over 64 years.

In contrast, female labour participation rate has constantly remained significantly lower than male LPR. “During January-April 2022, male LPR was 66% while the female LPR was 9%. While the male LPR for the age-group 25-59 years is systematically over 90%, the female LPR has never breached 20% for any age group.”

While the age distribution of the LPR for men has been largely stable through the economic shocks since 2016, this is not the case for women, CMIE notes. The female LPR curve was the highest in 2016, which means female participation in the labour force has constantly declined in subsequent years. The levels saw a substantial decline in 2018 compared to 2016, it shows.

Female LPR levels see “a small but significant departure” in 2020. While the levels remain below 2018, LPR for women of the 20-24 age group grew to 12.91% in 2020 from 10.91% two years ago as young women had started to come back to the labour markets in greater numbers during 2018-2019.

“The trend of young women entering the labour markets in larger proportions began after the wave of May-August 2018 when the female LPR was 10.28%. From here it climbed steadily in every subsequent wave to reach 14.31% in the wave of September-December 2019. This was the last wave before the pandemic,” CMIE states.

“The pandemic and the lockdowns arrested the steady growth in the LPR of women in the 20-24 age bracket. The ratio fell to its lowest at 8.7% in May-August 2020. Its recovery to 10.9% during September-December 2020 was promising. But, the further progress of young women of 20-24 years joining the labour markets has since stalled at around 10.5%,” it further adds.

The period between 2018 and 2019 also saw decline in female LPR in ages around 40 years even as it grew sharply in the 20-24 age group and then continued to grow till the late thirties.

“Post 2018, while the LPR shot up better in the 20-24 age bracket, it slid back during the age group 25-34 years before rising again in the late thirties and then beginning its decline. Female LPR in the 25-29 years age bracket is lower than it is in the 20-24 years group. This retreat of a young female work force is worth investigating,” the report says.

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