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Why women advance in higher ed, retreat in jobs

Girls have regularly outshone boys in board exams. And a tectonic shift may be underway in India’s higher education as well – women’s gross enrolment ratio is now higher than men’s. This is across BA, BSc, MPhil and MBBS programmes. Two factors may be at work here. Average incomes have risen, even though the rate of increase has probably slowed recently. And the transformative effect education can have on young women’s lives has become more and more apparent. The 2017-18 Economic Survey had highlighted that several gender indicators are much more responsive to wealth in India, as compared to other countries. But, and here’s the bad news, there are also stubborn outliers – women’s employment is a notable one.

Indian women’s labour force participation rate is lower than Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s, according to a 2020 World Bank report. The Survey had noted that the trend started last decade: 36% of women were employed in 2005-06, 24% in 2015-16. The income effect – higher average family incomes leading to withdrawal of women from labour force – is a reason. Demonetisation and the pandemic have taken added tolls. The first Covid wave hit women’s jobs disproportionately. The lockdown experience of working urban women was made more painful by persisting gender segregation of household work. The second wave seems to have hit rural women’s employment.

Social norms that dictate women must do most of the unpaid housework need to be challenged. If women get educated but still have to play family roles scripted a millennia ago, the glass of India’s progress will always be half empty.



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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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