Where are the Women?

India's missing women

India is one of the fastest growing economies of the world today and recently in Feb 2023, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva remarked that the Indian economy will alone contribute 15 percent of the global growth this year, as the country continues to remain a relatively “bright spot” in the world economy (“India remains”). Behind these flashy figures of growth and development lies the dark issue of missing women from the Indian workforce. The data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS July 2021-June 2022) shows. 29.4% of women (aged 15-59) were part of India’s labor force in 2021-22, as compared to 29.8% in the preceding year. In contrast, men’s LFPR improved from 80.1% in 2020-21 to 80.7% in 2021-22 (Dhamija and Chawla, 3). These figures are a bit alarming for India because our neighboring countries like Bangladesh, and Nepal have in recent years shown significant improvement in the female labor force participation rates in the country. A number of factors are at play here, for instance in Bangladesh the growth of the garment industry has significantly employed females. In addition to this, there is a general rise in microfinance initiatives that have facilitated access to credit and financial services for women in the country.

While inquiring deeply into the question of why women are missing we come to the conclusion that the reasons for the low participation of women in the workforce are a combination of social, cultural, economic, behavioral, and structural issues within Indian society. Amongst the women who are working in India, a large chunk of them almost 90 percent work in the informal sector which is usually marked by increased exploitation, poor working conditions, lack of mobility, and higher risk of violence (Sanyukta, 2). As a result of this, a general mindset has developed among the families that women should not take up work until and unless it is absolutely necessary for the survival of the family. This mindset in some ways stems from the unsafe working conditions in the informal sector. Another way to look at this problem is to say that these women are actually not missing but rather are being excluded from being counted as employed. In India, the unpaid care work of women is not taken into account while calculating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). If this unpaid work of women is factored in, the landscape of the female labor force would be drastically altered. In a recent NITI Aayog report it was found that women in India spend 9.8 times more time than men on unpaid domestic chores(Deora). Women’s disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic work often results in time poverty, meaning they have less time available for education, skill development, and paid employment. This limits their economic opportunities and hampers their potential for career growth and financial independence. It also reinforces the expectation that women are primarily responsible for household and caregiving duties, while men are primarily responsible for paid work. This in turn perpetuates gender stereotypes and hinders progress towards gender equality.

Another reason for the low female labor force participation is the disparity in the wages that women and men receive in India (Bhalla and Kaur). One reason for this is that women usually take up professions that are low paying. This “discrimination” often discourages women from entering the workforce. In addition to discrimination, there is also a clear trade-off that women face between education and employment choices in today’s world (Menon et al.). Oftentimes it is seen that Women may face pressure to prioritize education over employment due to societal expectations or cultural norms. This can result in delayed entry into the workforce or limited career options, as they may choose to focus on academic pursuits rather than seeking employment opportunities.

To solve the larger problem of low female participation a major policy that has been proposed by many economists is the universal basic income for women. This policy is largely proposed to get over the large portion of unpaid labor work that women perform. In simple terms, UBI recognizes and values unpaid work, such as caregiving and household chores, which are traditionally performed by women. By providing a basic income, UBI acknowledges the economic contributions of women’s unpaid work, contributing to a more equitable distribution of resources within households. The state of Tamil Nadu became one of the first states in India to implement a variant of the Universal Basic Income, called the Targeted Basic Income. This scheme known as  Magalir Urimai Thogai proposes a ₹1,000 per month income support to ‘eligible’ women family heads in the state (Ramakrishnan). There have been critics of the scheme who have discounted it on the account that it will lead to high government expenditure, or might result in spending of the money on unnecessary/wasteful goods by the receivers. These critical voices should be factored in and the way the policy can be implemented should be refined further but it can be rightly said as a positive move in the direction of recognizing the unpaid household work of certain sections of women in Tamil Nadu. 

 A number of other steps can be taken to bring back these missing women into the workforce. Some of these steps can be progressive labor reform measures, better employment trends in the manufacturing sector, an increasing share of self-employed people, and a rise in formal employment levels (Sanyukta, 2). We have to keep in mind that at the very core of all these initiatives has to be the phrase “the personal is political”, popularized by second-wave feminism in the late 1960s. Within this context, it implies that Issues that might be considered domestic or personal with respect to women like child care, elder care, and patriarchal norms within households that prevent women from actively participating in the labor force need to be brought out. By highlighting these personal issues, we can address the barriers that prevent women from fully engaging in employment and advocate for necessary changes.


Bhalla, Surjit  S., and Ravinder Kaur. 2022, Labour Force Participation of Women in India: Some Facts, Some Queries 

Deora, Shruti. “What’s Going on with India’s Female Labour Force Participation?” IDR, 21 Mar. 2023

Dhamija, Dhruvika, and Akshi Chawla. “Decoding Women’s Labour Force Participation in 2021-22: What the Periodic Labour Force Survey Shows.” CEDA Ashoka, 20 Mar. 2023

Menon, Sneha, et al. 2023, Female work and Labour force participation in India- A Meta-Study

PTI. “India Remains ‘Bright Spot’, to Contribute 15% of Global Growth in 2023: IMF MD.” The Indian Express, 22 Feb. 2023

Ramakrishnan, T. “Nearly 1 Crore Women May Get Covered under ‘Magalir Urimai Thogai’ Scheme.” 20 Mar. 2023

Sanyukta, Harsha. Sattva Knowledge, 2023, Female Labour Force Landscape in India

About Siddhima Sirohi

Siddhima is a policy research enthusiast, currently pursuing a Bachelor's in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. Her interests include Public Policy, Urban Governance, and International Relations. She is very passionate about the issue of women’s education.

Siddhima Sirohi

Siddhima is a policy research enthusiast, currently pursuing a Bachelor's in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. Her interests include Public Policy, Urban Governance, and International Relations. She is very passionate about the issue of women’s education.

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