What does the working-age Indian woman want, and why?


To advance gender equity and drive inclusive growth in India, it is imperative that more women from low-income households gain employment. From an economic standpoint alone, achieving gender parity in workforce participation can boost India’s GDP by 27 percent. However, women’s labour force participation has been declining. Between 2005 and 2019, women’s workforce participation in India slid from 45 percent to 27 percent.

There are 354 million working-age women in the country, of whom 128 million are in urban India. Only 20 percent of them are participating in the workforce. Among working-age urban Indian women, 83 percent come from households with low income. Among women from low-income households, 85 percent have not gone to college and more than 50 percent have not completed grade 10. Therefore, to increase women’s participation meaningfully, women from low-income and low-education backgrounds must be gainfully employed.

What is restraining Indian women? 

To answer this question, it is important to acknowledge the role that families and society play in how women are raised and socialised. Women’s agency is inextricably linked to their family commitments and beliefs. Society imposes barriers and also influences women’s mindsets.

While there is considerable secondary data on labour market participation, wage gaps, and similar statistics, it is important to develop a nuanced understanding of why women are being held back, and what their preferences towards employment are. 

We at FSG interviewed 6,600 working-age women from low-income households in 16 cities across 14 states. Our aims were to understand women’s beliefs, motivations, and employment preferences; identify segments of women that have a higher propensity to be in a job; and determine strategies to help increase women’s workforce participation.

Here are some key insights from the report.

1. Women still need to secure permission from men to work

We found that 84 percent of women need to secure their families’ permission to work. For one in three women who are neither working nor seeking a job, the inability to secure permission or the absence of a precedent in the community are the main reasons for not working.

2. Attitudes of key decision-makers are progressive in theory, not in practice

We identified the key decision-maker in a woman’s household as the family member she needs to seek permission from to pursue a job or business. More than 90 percent of key decision-makers agree that a woman must have a job in order to be self-reliant, and that a working woman can help enhance family prestige. But when it comes to women in their families, one in four believe women should not work at all, and 72 percent of the rest believe women should only work from home or engage in a small business in order to devote more time to household work. 

3. Women are working despite a lack of, and not because of, family support

Even in households with a working woman, 41 percent of key decision-makers believe that women working outside the home care less about their families and homes, 21 percent prefer that women in their homes do not work at all, and 77 percent prefer that they work from home or run a small business so that they can spend more time at home.

The burden of household chores and childcare also falls disproportionately on women. Both working and non-working women spend more than four hours on household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and washing. This does not include any time that may be spent on caring for a child, helping with homework, or dropping and/or picking up the child at and from school. On the other hand, urban Indian men spend 25 minutes a day, on average, on household responsibilities.

4. Childcare is considered the woman’s responsibility

While women believe mothers should work outside the house, men don’t. Our research revealed that 88 percent of women believe one can work outside the house after having a child, and 52 percent of women believe that mothers with children under the age of six can work outside of the home. In contrast, 61 percent of key decision-makers believe that women with young children (below the age of six) should not seek employment outside of their homes.

5. Most urban Indian mothers are unwilling to consider paid day-care services

For children who are 12 years old or younger, less than 1 percent of working mothers (current or former) have used paid childcare services. Irrespective of their employment status, 89 percent of mothers are unwilling to consider paid day care because 41 percent believe that caring for children is one’s own job, and 38 percent do not trust day-care services. Moreover, 75 percent of key decision-makers would not permit sending children to paid day care. 

Lack of affordability is not a key factor for not considering paid day care. Only 15 percent of mothers and 1 percent of key decision-makers cite lack of affordability as a reason for not opting for paid day care. Of these 15 percent, half even cite unwillingness to send their children to an anganwadi—a free day-care service provided by the government for limited hours during the day. Reasons for this include unsafe conditions and a belief that family-like care is not given.

6. Women are trained in gendered vocations

While more than 30 percent of women have had some level of vocational training, 85 percent of trained women have received training in gendered jobs, such as sewing or tailoring, beauty or make-up services, and mehndi application. 

Some women from low-income and low-education backgrounds are keen and interested in non-traditional jobs. One in two women are comfortable working in an environment that is 90 percent male, 42 percent are willing to sell products to customers in person, and 72 percent believe they can pick up a 15-kilogram load.

7. Women prefer jobs over entrepreneurship

A majority of key decision-makers in low-income households feel that if women in their own families run a small business, they will be able to spend more time at home. However, 59 percent of women prefer jobs over entrepreneurship, as do nearly two-thirds of women who aspire to work. Moreover, 93 percent of women prefer fixed salaries over daily wages.

Despite these barriers, women want to work

Our research shows that despite these barriers, 33 percent of non-working women are keen to work, and one in two women is either working in a job or seeking one. Moreover, 64 percent of women strongly believe that in order to be self-reliant, it is important to work. Fifty-two percent of working women say that they enjoy working, and 90 percent of working women overwhelmingly agree that working is the right thing to do.

More women are getting educated today. They are confident in their abilities. Supporting one’s personal and family expenses is a key reason for more than 90 percent of women working in or seeking jobs. Women start working for financial reasons, but want to continue irrespective of financial need. Only 20 percent of working women say they would stop working if they did not have financial constraints, while 78 percent intend to work until retirement age or as health permits. Among job seekers too, only 32 percent would stop searching if finances were no longer a consideration. 

While unsupportive social norms, deep-seated mental models regarding childcare, and prevailing biases negatively impact the propensity of women to work in a job, these factors do not impact all women equally. Women with no children, those with older children, and those who know other working women have a higher propensity to be in a job. 

How can we break these barriers?

A concerted effort on the part of multiple stakeholders can create a more welcoming ecosystem for women to be employed. Individuals, especially men, should avoid assuming women’s needs at work, and instead be flexible to accommodate their specific and evolving needs. Companies should proactively address biases or perceived risks by sharing the business benefits of a gender-diverse workforce. Governments can make policies more inclusive, such as replacing maternal leave with parental leave. Philanthropies can fund public awareness campaigns showcasing childcare as a shared responsibility of spouses or domestic partners.

Using the insights gathered from our research, FSG’s Growing Livelihood Opportunities for Women (GLOW) programme aims to place more than one million women from low-income households in jobs by shifting companies’ mindset and practices.

The current gender-inequitable system is an outcome of our collective choices and attitudes, and it is incumbent upon all of us to make better choices and lead India towards a more gender-equitable society and workforce.


Vikram Jain is the managing director for initiatives at FSG, a mission-driven consulting firm that partners with corporations and foundations to create equitable systems change. He leads FSG’s Program to Improve Private Early Education (PIPE), which aims to replace rote learning with activity-based learning in all 3,00,000 affordable private schools in India, and FSG’s Growing Livelihood Opportunities for Women (GLOW) programme, which aims to sustainably place more than one million women from low-income households in jobs by shifting companies’ mindsets and practices.

This article was first published in IDR Online

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