Only 1 in 10 Are Employed: The Disastrous Female Employment Rate In India

Only 1 out of 10 women of working age in India are employed. But why? The female employment rate in India is among the lowest in the world, lower than even the likes of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

India remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with a GDP growth rate of 8.2% in 2023. However, this on-paper impressive economic performance has not translated into more jobs for women (or for men). India has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates (FLFPR) in the world.

Courtesy: PolyMatter

For those living beyond Delhi, Mumbai, and tier-one cities, take a moment to observe your neighborhood and consciously acknowledge the stark contrast in the number of women actively engaged in paid employment opportunities compared to their male counterparts. The difference is astonishing.

But is it because our women don’t need to work? Or because they just aren’t qualified enough? Or is there something else? Read on to find out.

A Brief Background of Women’s Employment

Women have historically viewed working outside the home as a sign of financial hardship or social stigma, rather than as a source of income or empowerment. Today, in many parts of Europe and China, this stigma no longer exists. However, in India, particularly in rural areas, it continues to persist.

It is worth noting that women’s participation in the Indian labor force was not always so low. In fact, during the early years after independence, women’s employment, especially in rural areas, was relatively high as they worked in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and animal husbandry. 

According to the Census of India, the female labor force participation rate was 32.7% in 1951 and peaked at 37.4% in 1981. Since then, though, it has steadily declined, reaching 20% in 2011 and estimated to be around 9.4% in 2023.

Female Employment Rate in India Today

The current FLFPR in India is among the lowest in the world, and well below the global average of 46.9% in 2023. According to the latest data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO), only 9.4% of women aged 15 and above were either working or seeking work in 2023, compared to 75.8% of men. This means that there were only 55.6 million employed women in India, out of a total female population of 591.4 million.


The FLFPR in India varies significantly by urban and rural areas, as well as by states and regions. In urban areas, the FLFPR was 10.5% in 2023, while in rural areas, it was 8.8%. Among the states and union territories, the FLFPR ranged from 3.6% in Uttar Pradesh to 33.7% in Mizoram. The FLFPR was also higher in the northeastern and southern regions, and lower in the northern and central regions.


When compared to other major economies, India’s FLFPR stands out as an outlier. For instance, the FLFPR in China was 61% in 2023, in the United States it was 55.8%, in Brazil it was 52.9%, and in Germany, it was 51.8%. Even among other subcontinental countries, India had the lowest FLFPR, below Bangladesh (36.3%), Nepal (26.3%), Pakistan (24.9%), and Sri Lanka (24.5%).

Barriers Limiting Women’s Access to Employment


Multiple factors prevent women from entering or staying in the labor force in India.

      • Lack of job opportunities matching women’s skills and qualifications: This is by far the biggest factor. India’s economic growth has been driven largely by the service sector, which has not created enough jobs for women, especially in urban areas.

        Women tend to have lower levels of education and skills than men and face discrimination and bias in hiring practices. Moreover, women are often confined to low-paying, informal, and precarious jobs, such as domestic work, street vending, and home-based work, which offer little security, benefits, or social protection.

      • Gender discrimination and bias in hiring practices: Women face various forms of discrimination and bias in the labor market, such as lower wages, fewer promotions, and violence. According to a World Bank report, women in India earn 35% less than men on average, and the gender wage gap is higher in urban areas and formal sectors.

      • Safety and mobility challenges impacting women’s ability to commute to work: Women in India face many safety and mobility challenges that affect their access to employment opportunities. Women often have to travel long distances to reach their workplaces, and face harassment, violence, and insecurity on public transport and roads.

      • Household and care responsibilities leave little time for paid work: Women in India bear the disproportionate burden of household and care work, such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water, collecting fuel, and looking after children, elderly, and sick family members.

        According to the latest time use survey by the NSO, women spent 299 minutes per day on unpaid domestic and care work in 2023, compared to 97 minutes by men. This leaves women with little time and energy for paid work and reduces their bargaining power and autonomy within the household.

    Role of Education & Skills

    Education and skills are crucial for enhancing women’s employability and productivity in the labor market. However, in India, there is a paradox of rising educational attainment yet limited translation into jobs for women. According to the PLFS, the literacy rate among women aged 15 and above was 74.4% in 2023, up from 65.5% in 2011. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) for women in higher education was 28.5% in 2023, up from 18.8% in 2011. However, these improvements in education have not resulted in more jobs for women, as the FLFPR has declined over the same period.

    One of the reasons for this disconnect is the mismatch between the skills gained by women and the market demand. Women tend to choose subjects and courses that are less relevant or valued in the labor market, such as arts, humanities, and social sciences, while men tend to choose subjects and courses that are more in demand, such as engineering, technology, and management. 

    Women also face barriers in accessing vocational and entrepreneurship training opportunities, such as a lack of information, awareness, guidance, finance, and mentorship.

    Impact of Social Norms and Traditions


    Social norms and traditions play a significant role in shaping women’s choices and opportunities in the labor market. In India, many cultural and religious practices restrict women’s mobility, autonomy, and decision-making power, such as purdah, dowry, child marriage, and son preference. 

    According to the latest data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 26.8% of women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18 in 2023, and 35.4% of women aged 15-49 had experienced some form of spousal violence in their lifetime. Moreover, 40.5% of women aged 15-49 had no say in their health care, 54.8% had no say in major household purchases, and 83.2% needed permission from their husbands or other family members to go to the market, health facility, or places outside the village or community.

    These social norms and traditions also affect women’s preferences and attitudes towards work. Many women internalize the gender stereotypes and expectations that are imposed on them by their families and society and view their primary role as homemakers and caregivers, rather than workers and earners. 

    According to the World Values Survey, 76.3% of women in India agreed that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women” in 2023, compared to 69.9% of men. Similarly, 68.4% of women agreed that “a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl” in 2023, compared to 62.7% of men.

    Policy Recommendations for Improving the Female Employment Rate in India

        1. Increase access to childcare. The lack of affordable, reliable childcare is a major barrier that prevents many women from joining or remaining in the workforce. The government could subsidize childcare costs or establish a national childcare program to support working mothers.

        2. Provide paid family leave. Mandate paid maternity leave and expand it to include paid paternity leave as well. Paid family leave policies help women balance career and family responsibilities.

        3. Develop skills training programs. Launch vocational training initiatives targeted at women to equip them with marketable skills for growing sectors. Partner with companies to create apprenticeship and internship opportunities.

        4. Promote female entrepreneurship. Offer grants, loans, and mentorship programs to help more women start their own businesses. Reduce regulatory hurdles and simplify processes for obtaining licenses/permits.

        5. Lead by example in government hiring. The public sector can set an example by prioritizing gender diversity in its own recruitment and promotion practices. Reserve a certain percentage of government jobs for women candidates.

        6. Challenge social norms. Run nationwide media campaigns promoting the social and economic benefits of women’s participation in the paid labor force. Work with local communities and grassroots organizations to change deep-rooted cultural mindsets.

      India’s low female labor participation represents an untapped reservoir of human potential. By not integrating nearly half the population into the workforce, India is depriving itself of the innovative spirit, diverse perspectives, and economic contributions of millions. This self-imposed talent blockade comes at a steep price in lost GDP, higher rates of poverty, and greater inequality.


      However, with visionary leadership (which the country lacks), India has an opportunity to remove the systemic barriers keeping women on the sidelines and out of power. With the right reforms, our nation can transform from wasting women’s potential to benefiting from their full participation.


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