Women’s Workforce Participation in West Bengal
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
- Rayandev Sen -
Goal 5 of the SDGs of the United Nations reads as follows: "to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls". One of the reasons why this goal remains to be achieved is the fact that there still remains a gender gap in employment rates - males outnumber females in the labour forces of nearly every country in the world¹. Tackling this gender disparity in the labour market is accepted to be a giant leap towards gender equality; equality being a paramount objective for human progress, it follows that opportunity to work ought to be given to everyone, equally, regardless of gender.
The absence of women in the global workforce has a direct economic impact. OECD’s estimates indicate there has been a global loss of $12 trillion due to discriminatory practices hampering the participation of women in the economy². Along with the economy-wide impact, the impact on the individual is also notable: without steady work, fair pay and equal opportunity the freedoms of the average woman are constrained. In the absence of sufficient economic empowerment, women are more likely to face domestic violence and depression³ while they are less likely to have access to healthcare services. Though a basket of correlated variables is a cause of the status quo, it becomes quite apparent that achieving an equitable workforce is a major stepping stone to the development of fairer, wealthier nations.
Women in West Bengal’s Workforce
In the past few years, the Female Worker Population Ratio (FWPR⁴) in Bengal has been steadily rising - which appears to be the beginning of a more balanced workforce. However, Bengal has been historically lagging behind in terms of FWPR when compared with the rest of the nation. In 2020, the FWPR in Bengal was 23.1% while the national average was 28.7%. Apart from this difference with the rest of the nation, there exist some notable structural issues as well. A majority of women are self-employed and are own-account⁵ workers.
Figure 1: Source: The World Bank Group
Most of these women work in very small-scale enterprises (their homes, for example) which raises concerns regarding profitability and working conditions. These informal sector workers face low daily wages and often are deprived of a safe and hygienic workspace.
Figure 2: Source: Periodic Labor Force Survey Data and RBI’s Workforce Publications
Relative to the participation of men, women’s workforce participation has been dismal. This sustained gap in participation is a truly worrying symptom which indicates women in Bengal face difficult obstacles in getting satisfactory occupations. Due to this gap in participation, the West Bengal economy is estimated to have lost ₹30.91 Lakh Crores⁶.
Obstacles to Inclusion
Studies⁷ have shown that FWPR in rural villages in Bengal tends to fall with an increase in literacy rate - indicating that there aren't enough jobs for women to work in. It necessarily isn’t a case of a lack of jobs that affects a woman’s willingness to participate in the job market but the quality of the jobs available. This implies the participation of women in formal work is closely entangled with the rate of job creation in the state.
Further, a majority of women are employed in the informal sector where working conditions are miserable. Women in the informal sector in Bengal face rampant discrimination leading to women earning significantly lower wages⁸. Female informal workers face unlawful working hours and modest wages which makes them less likely to own assets, partake in decisions regarding family expenditure and have autonomy regarding their own health decisions⁹. A study from Tamil Nadu (which has a similar informal sector as Bengal) shows that women in the informal sector tend to be more susceptible to diseases such as anaemia. They are also less likely to have access to toilets and sanitation¹⁰. The informality of the workforce makes sustained employment a myth for workers, forcing workers in and out of work without any government regulation. Unstable, unremunerative employment is as good as unemployment for workers in these industries.
Another obstacle to increasing women’s participation in the labour market is the low intra-household bargaining power they possess. They are often dominated by males within the family which prevents them from entering the labour force in the first place. Lowe and McKelway (2019) found that in India households tend to be non-cooperative, that is, males tend to have control over information about employment opportunities while women are kept in the dark. Empirical evidence suggests that women’s autonomy within the family grows with their education and their age¹¹. Thus, a mixture of formal job creation and access to higher education is likely to lead to a better participation rate.
Seeing the lack of adequate job opportunities for women and the harsh conditions which exist in the majority of the job market, the focus should be on promoting self-employment through cooperation amongst women workers. There exists a vast literature on how women working in groups (through self-help groups, for example) can lead to employment generation in both urban and rural settings. Bringing together women in the informal sector to form women’s cooperatives may also have a positive impact on bettering working conditions and increasing employment rates.
Women face an uphill battle for fair integration into West Bengal’s workforce. They have been historically overshadowed by men and have only recently shown signs of taking back their share in the economy. Discrimination, lack of job opportunities and a sizeable informal sector holds them back from doing secure, fulfilling work and entering the workforce. Thus, concerted efforts need to be to generate employment for women while giving them the confidence and the resources to penetrate and succeed in the workforce.
FWPR - The proportion of women above the age of 15 who are employed against the total female population
Own Account Workers - Self-employed workers who control their enterprise but don’t hire employees
Calculations based on ADB’s Brief No. 71 “Female Labour Force Participation in Asia: Key Trends, Constraints and Opportunities”
Goswami, 2019; Chakraborty & Chakraborty, 2010
Selvi, 2015; Sharma et al. 2015
Bengal Policy Hackathon: Round I Problem Statements
Participating team can attempt any of the two problem statements
As the pandemic subsides and the economy starts to recover, Bengal finds itself in a position to include more women in its workforce. There arises a need for meticulous research, both quantitative and qualitative, to understand the intricacies of gender, work and the economy. Thus, we call for policy briefs on the following two topics:
Topic I - Analysing the impact of co-operatives and self-help groups
Examine how women’s co-operatives and self-help groups generate employment for women in West Bengal. Suggest policy recommendations, new methodologies or alternative approaches to increase women’s workforce participation in Bengal based on quantitative and qualitative evidence.
Topic II - Increasing formal job opportunities for women
Identify the barriers which prevent women from transitioning from the informal to the formal sector in West Bengal (lack of vocational training, difficulty in migration etc.). Propose recommendations to push more women into the formal job market.