Using a work-from-home facility, Swati Sharma worked for a few months after her baby was born six years ago but quit when her company withdrew the option.
“They wanted people to come to work everyday, it became very difficult,” she said, pointing out that child care facilities near her home in New Delhi did not have high standards.
Stories of women leaving jobs are common: An estimated 20 million Indian women have dropped out of the workforce over the last decade, both in sprawling cities and the vast countryside where fewer women now work on farms.
It’s a staggering number that researchers are trying to decode.
Indian economy is robust
Despite India’s buoyant economy, female employment has fallen dramatically over the last decade. Only 27 percent of women are in the workforce compared to about 40 percent in the mid-1990s. That is less than many lower-income countries like neighboring Bangladesh or other emerging economies like Brazil.
A World Bank study released recently says India needs to reverse the declining rates of women in the labor market to push growth.
The study said 3 of every 5 prime working age Indian women (26-45 years old) are not economically active.
Higher incomes play role
But not all the reasons are negative. An era of high growth has increased household incomes and propelled millions of families into the middle and upper middle class. The relative household affluence has given many women the option to drop out of the workforce.
In the lower-income strata, better incomes for farm and construction labor have also resulted in many poor families in rural areas educating girls. As a result, the number of those between 15 and 25 years in school and college has doubled to 30 percent.
“Many of these young women who were working before perhaps out of necessity are now in school and building up their human capital,” said Frederico Gil Sander, senior economist at the World Bank in New Delhi.
More jobs needed for the well-educated
However not all women stay at home because there is a dearth of suitable opportunities.
“If you survey women, many of the women they want to work, but the fact is that not enough jobs are being created that women can take up,” Sander said.
In an urbanizing country, while large cities offer regular jobs in services and manufacturing, similar avenues are not available in smaller towns.
Garima Verma, 32, for example, quit her job a year ago because she wanted a break. But some months later she moved from New Delhi to Jaipur and says that finding a suitable job in a smaller city has not been easy.
“Lesser (opportunities) I would say as compared to metros definitely,” she said.
Indian workplaces can be unfriendly to women
But even in booming urban centers, women often find it hard to stay the course, partly because most Indian companies have rigid work structures and reliable child care facilities are few and far between.
Sairee Chahal, founder of SHEROES, a portal for women job seekers, said in an era of global competition, extended work hours have become the norm at most workplaces. And patriarchal attitudes in a conservative society do not help.
“Firms are very unwelcoming around the need for flexibility, maternity is still considered a challenge. And while women have made it to the workplace, men have not picked up stuff at home and that continues to burden women at home,” Chahal said.
A need for more high tech jobs
The low participation of women in the workforce is especially surprising in a country where a large number of college graduates are women — women like Garima Verma and Swati Sharma, who both have college degrees.
“Even highly educated women are not working and this is in a way a form of a brain drain,” Sander said. “Only 34 percent of women with either a diploma or college degree are working.”
Pointing out that this includes a large number of women graduates in science and technology, the World Bank said India needs to create opportunities to tap this human capital.
Swati Sharma, for example, would like to return to work once her 6-month-old baby is a little older, but with working conditions in companies too challenging, she is taking a course so that she can teach “the only option left for me,” she said.
The World Bank said the key to closing the gender gap is to create more jobs, especially regular salaried jobs that are flexible and can be safely accessed by women.
But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, warns human resources professional Chahal, and reversing the declining trend poses many challenges.
“We do have women who are educated — basically all set and nowhere to go, all set and no doors opening for you,” she said.