Women at Work

The Data

How is India different from other growing economies?

Less women in the workforce

The number of working women in India has been declining for almost twelve years: the country’s performance in female workforce participation stands at 27%, the lowest among BRIC countries, and one of the lowest globally. This rate has dropped from 42% in 2004, and has occurred despite the strong economic growth: in 2015-16 the Indian GDP growth rate reached 7.6%, up from 5.6% in 2011-12.

Is it sustainable for an economy to grow at this pace with such low participation of women? And, do these figures reflect the reality of working women in India?

Evolution 1990-2014

Female Workforce Participation in India

Female Workforce Participation


China - 64%
Brazil - 59%
Russia - 57%
South Africa - 45%
India - 27&

* InternationalLabour Organization, 2014 and World Bank, 2015

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), although most women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another, much of their work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics, and thus female participation in the economy tends to be under-reported.

Furthermore, women tend to be grouped in certain industries and occupations, such as basic agriculture, sales and elementary services and handicraft manufacture. The nature of the Indian economic growth has meant that these sectors have not created new jobs, putting a brake on women’s participation.

Historically, changes in employment trends are linked to the process of structural transformation, as resources (capital and workers) are moved from low to high-productivity sectors. This has been the case on other countries in East and South-East Asia: in Bangladesh, the female participation rates dramatically increased due to the economic shift from agriculture to manufacturing. In India, this transition has not yet taken place to the same extent.

Women’s rights: a pending issue

India is a tremendously complex nation, where tradition, patriarchy and strict gender norms still play an essential part in society. Women’s economic empowerment plays a critical role in issues such as marriage age, domestic violence or reproduction age. One of the main reasons why women find it difficult to go out and work in India is the fact that they face a lot of abuse and harassment, inside and outside of their homes. This is why women’s safety and security are key issues that need to be addressed by policy makers.