Over the last few years, a considerable amount of policy attention—in deliberation and design—has tried to focus on enabling a more gender-inclusive growth strategy for developing nations, especially for larger developing countries like India. The persistent scale of gender inequality in India has not only led to lesser participation of women in growth-driving sectors of employment (manufacturing, services, transport and communication etc.) but also affected structural and performative aspects of the economy.

India is currently facing a major, more structural economic slowdown, that requires a bold push towards re-imagining its key drivers of growth, which need to be aligned with a gradual feminisation of growth opportunities and processes.

There has been some attention given to analysing the unequal ‘deal’ women have got in years after the pro-market reforms of early 1990s, that is evident in terms of female-male wage offerings, nature of employment contract, education and skill opportunities etc. As per ILO reports from 2018, Indian women spend 297 minutes per day on unpaid care work as against 31 minutes by men, while in case of paid work women spend only 160 minutes compared to 360 minutes by men. This statistic points to the need to incorporate new concerns, besides existing focus on childcare and job creation, on time-use surveys and women's time poverty.

There still remains far less mainstream discussion (and attention) on vital concerns stemming from the form and role of the ‘care economy’, increasing ‘unpaid work’ for women amongst other inter-connected social factors (say, motherhood expectations), that have inhibited women’s preference for participation in ‘paid’ work across states and allowing them to attain a more equal role in shaping India’s development story.

By ‘care economy’, we mean the ways in which ‘care’ is regulated, financed and provided by care-providers (most often being women across age groups). The critical role care plays in the development of children’s personalities (and education) and the medical care of the elderly makes it imperative to qualify this as a priority in the social and economic core policy of states in India.

In fact, in more developed countries within Western Europe and North America (Canada), governments play a crucial role in supporting the care-economy, by investment in the affordable access of a robust care-infrastructure for children and the elderly (seen as care-receivers or ‘dependents’).

‘Motherhood Penalty’

From a growth perspective, the requirement of a care-infrastructure and studying a deeper functioning of the care-economy in relation to women’s overall participation in workforce may need to incorporate a time-endowment (time-availability) criterion.

This concept—time endowment—was earlier articulated by Gary Becker, who explained how there is a greater need to understand female labour supply (across sectors) through a lens that views the allocation and poverty of ‘time’ as reasons affecting female participation (and sustenance) across working spaces.

What this means is that the (social) expectation of a woman to take care of a child in the early years of the child’s age significantly affects her work time endowment on a day-to-day basis, in turn affecting her full-time work commitments. One can perhaps acknowledge this added social (and economic) cost of being a care-provider as a ‘motherhood penalty’ – imposed in households where there is an expectation from women to be primary care-providers of the child.

As a consequence, with lesser time endowment, women can allocate lesser time towards work (or education/skill-upgradation) significantly affects her work preferences over time too. In India’s structure of employment, it has been observed how post the age of 30, owing to marriage or motherhood, a significant number of women (especially in urban areas) shift from full-time work to part-time (or causal) employment contracts. This has also been widely observed from cross-country studies in feminist literature.

Some key policy themes emerging from this are outlined below.

The 2010 National Dynamic Monitoring Survey of Floating Populations discussed the presence of a negative link between female labor force participation rates (for both- migrant and native mothers) and childcare costs. A 1% increase in child-care costs, as per the study, decreases native women’s labor force participation by 0.3%. The motherhood penalty imposed on women thus remains evident with the rise of child-care costs and its subsequent effects on increased burden of care-work that is expected from the mother.

But, what about the case of millions of women whose work remains to be seen as ‘unpaid’ or ‘invisible’ in the economic sense?

About 75-80% of the world’s unpaid work and care is provided for by women. An OECD study, reports that a woman, on average spends a minimum of six hours on unpaid work as compared to men (spending less than 50 minutes per day on similar work). In fact, our very understanding of ‘unpaid’ work for women requires greater scrutiny. Women working in family-owned enterprises or in family-constituted work environments may actively be involved towards the enterprise, and working in it without seeing themselves as ‘workers’.

Anyone else ascertaining women’s income contributions (or earnings) may hardly be able to account for this nor know the time-endowment classification between ‘family-enterprise unpaid work’ and other ‘domestic chores-also seen as part of unpaid work’. Also, from a statistical point, this remains difficult to measure this from a macro level, considering the diverse nature of a woman’s work contract within (or outside) the household.

What this means is that we have a very limited idea on the extent to which women—across age groups—in India can exercise any form of independent agency (or choice) towards their work preferences or how much time-endowment do they require to achieve these preferences (even if they are revealed).

Feminising Growth

In terms of sectoral compositions as growth drivers, sectors like manufacturing, construction and agriculture are still widely considered in the realm of ‘brawn-based production’ limited to a masculinised comparative advantage. The chart below highlights how areas of job-creating sectors saw a widening of female-male labour force participation in years after the 1990s reforms, as a result, women (across working age groups) have been left behind even if the aggregate growth numbers have improved.

Source: Author’s Calculations

Even though education levels of women vis-à-vis men have considerably increased in primary, secondary, and tertiary segments, still, men have substantially more alternative employment opportunities as compared to women. As Desai (2019) states, “A Man with Class 10th education can be a postal carrier, a truck-driver or a mechanic; these opportunities (on the other hand) are not available to women.”

Addressing India’s current challenges of wage stagnation, unemployment and enabling the economy to grow in the future, not only depends on channelising investments in financially productive areas but also in increasing time-endowment for women to participate in ‘paid’ work opportunities while ensuring upward economic and social mobility over a sustained period of time.

From a policy-perspective, this requires a focused approach towards three channels: a) increasing income elasticity through alternative growth opportunities for women (across sectors); b) investing in creating a robust care-infrastructure for children and elderly (to help women increase their work time endowment); c) and, ensuring legally enforced rights to women in property ownership and incentives for asset-based investments. In rural areas, creating greater social awareness on issues surfacing from the lack of attention given to the care economy and the disproportionate care work performed by women in households can go a long way in allowing women to enter ‘paid’ work outside the household and gain greater, independent agency for their own well-being.

Acknowledging, formalising, and normalising the participation of both men and women in the care economy will pave new paths towards inclusive growth and a feminised space in development economics.

Views are personal.

Mohan is associate professor of economics, and director, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, and Manivannan is honorary research fellow, Center for Human Rights Studies.

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