What’s holding young women in India back? Closing the gender gap in accessing decent work

  • Protap Mukherjee
  • Renu Singh
24 November, 2022

Gender inequality in employment has continued to increase in India, particularly for regular salaried employment, despite high economic growth and better access to education for girls over recent years. While the government has funded numerous programmes to improve skills development and entrepreneurship opportunities, including efforts to reduce inequalities, much more needs to be done to meet Sustainable Development Goal 8 and achieve equal access to secure, decent jobs for all. 

With over two decades of research following the lives of 3,000 young people in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Young Lives study has generated important insights into how gender and early childhood inequalities impact transitions from school to work in India.  

Overall, our analysis shows that by the age of 22, young women are 59% less likely to have regular salaried jobs than young men, after controlling for other background variables such as wealth, location and education. Young women are much more likely than men to undertake unpaid work such as childcare, be unemployed (not working for pay) or self-employed in low wage work such as farming and agriculture.  

Drawing from new evidence published in our recent journal article, ‘Exploring Reasons for Low Female Labour Force Participation in Regular Salaried Jobs’, this blog sets out key factors affecting access to decent work for young women and men, defined as regular salaried work earning more than INR 9,000 per month on average.   

We suggest a broad approach is required to address the gender employment gap. This should include tackling the underlying causes of gender discrimination, particularly in relation to reducing early marriage and the demands of unpaid domestic work, alongside increasing investment in education and skills, including higher education and vocational training.   

Early marriage significantly reduces the likelihood of young women getting a decent job 

Our analysis shows that marital status is by far the strongest predictor of whether a young woman is employed in a regular salaried job. By the age of 22, only 14.5% of married women in our sample were employed in regular salaried jobs, compared to 41% of unmarried women. This is an important finding in a country where the majority of young women currently get married between the ages of 18 and 21,and an estimated 1.5 million girls are still married before the age of 18 each year, despite targeted government action over recent decades.  

Children who spend significant amounts of time on domestic (unpaid) work are also less likely to get a decent job as a young adult. Girls and young women consistently shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid domestic work in India, with already heavy burdens further exacerbated during the pandemic. Among our study participants, 54% of young women who did not spend any time doing domestic work at age 12 subsequently went on to regular salaried jobs by age 22, compared to only 21% of those who spent more than three hours a day on domestic work during their childhood.  

Socio-economic background also matters. Young people from poor households and rural areas are less likely to secure decent work compared to those from wealthier and urban households. Among our sample, only 23% of young women from the poorest households were employed in decent jobs, compared to 46% of those belonging to wealthier households.   

Building foundational skills and learning through to higher education can improve access to decent jobs 

Acquiring foundational skills early in life could improve young people’s chances of accessing decent work. Among our study participants, those who had better reading skills at age 8 were significantly more likely to be employed in regular salaried jobs by the age of 22, compared to those with poor early reading skills. Among young women who had been able to read fluently at the age of 8, 30% were in regular salaried jobs by the age of 22, compared to only 19% of those with poor early reading skills.  

Digital skills are increasingly important for accessing decent work, though a persistent gender digital divide continues to hold many young women back. Among our sample, 71% of women who used computers regularly were found to be in regular salaried jobs compared to only 20% of those who did not use computers regularly. Previous Young Lives evidence has shown that young people’s access to computers can be predicted as early as one year of age, primarily depending on family wealth, maternal education and urban/rural location, and with a strong gender bias against girls in India.  

Higher education and vocational courses significantly improve young people’s chances of decent work, particularly for young women. Among our sample, 46% of young women with higher education qualifications were in decent jobs by the age of 22, compared to only 8% of those with below secondary school qualifications. Those who had completed a vocational course were even more likely to have found regular salaried employment. In fact, all the young women in our sample (100%) who had completed vocational courses were employed in regular salaried jobs, compared to 50% of young men, although completion of vocational courses was relatively low overall (only 16% of our sample). 

So what needs to be done? 

A broad approach is required to reverse growing inequality in the labour market in India, with a strong focus on addressing the underlying causes of gender discrimination, alongside continued investment in skills and education, including higher education and vocational training.   

  • Reducing early marriage is likely to have huge benefits for girls and young women across a range of life outcomes including improving access to decent work. The Cabinet has recently passed a recommendation to increase the marital age of women from 18 to 21 years, and the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 has been introduced in Lok Sabha. While this change in the law bode wells for increasing the window of opportunity for girls to access higher education and decent work, legislation alone will not be enough. Policymakers needs to tackle the underlying causes of early marriage, including alleviating poverty through targeted social protection systems, and addressing persistent discriminatory gender norms which continue to reinforce early marriage and form barriers to accessing decent  employment. This involves engaging whole communities, including men and boys, to challenge patriarchal norms 

  • Initiatives to help address increasing levels of unpaid domestic work are also important to relieve the burden on girls and women and help them resume their education or employment, including support to continue working after bearing children such as improving maternity leave, access to childcare and social protection for disadvantaged families.   

  • Investing in teachers and schools is critical to improve foundational learning through developing basic literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional skills. This includes better access to quality pre-primary education which can have significant long-term positive impacts on skills development and learning outcomes. The importance of foundational learning is recognised in the National Education Policy 2020 and ensuring this is effectively implemented could have a profound impact on young people’s access to decent jobs. A mission entitled NIPUN Bharath has been launched at the national level for this purpose, with the aim of making all students in grade 3 and beyond achieve foundational literacy and numeracy by 2025.  

  • Addressing the digital divide requires improving internet connectivity and the availability of computers and other low-cost digital devices among the poorest households, particularly in rural areas.  But action is also required to challenge gender stereotypes that inhibit girls’ access to the digital world. 

  • Supporting girls and young women to stay in education becomes increasingly critical as girls enter adolescence. Providing safe transport to schools and colleges (which are often at a distance from rural communities) and ensuring safe and girl-friendly environments within schools, including providing suitable facilities for water and sanitation needs, is essential. Targeted scholarships can also make a big difference, particularly for adolescent girls and young women from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

  • Increasing access to higher education and vocational learning should remain a pivotal goal for improving opportunities for decent work, particularly for young women. While India has seen some increase in higher education enrolment in recent years, there is still much to do if we are to meet the National Education Policy goal to increase the gross enrolment ratio to 50% by 2035 (from 27.1% in 2019/20).    

Young Lives plans to return to the field in 2023 to conduct our next comprehensive in-person survey; this data will enable us to generate further new insights into the gender employment gap in India. 

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