The statistics tell a woeful tale. Even though more Indian girls are being educated, and achieving a higher level of educational achievement, the number of women in the labour force is growing only marginally in urban areas and declining in villages.

According to one University Grants Commission report, women’s enrolment in higher education rose to 70.49 lakh in 2010-’11 from 47.08 lakh in 2006-’07. Yet, the National Employment and Unemployment Surveys conducted by the National Sample Survey Office shows that the number of working women fell to 103.6 million in 2011-’12 from 126.49 million in 2004-’05. In urban areas, there was only a slight increase, to 28.8 million in 2011-’12 from 26.50 million in 2005-’06.

A recent article in The New York Times titled ‘Why aren’t India’s women working?’ suggested that this situation could be remedied by establishing quotas for women and increasing skill training. But could this really help?

The main reason that women are not being counted in the workforce is that they are doing unpaid labour at home, something that is not reported in National Accounting Statistics. Paradoxically, despite several government schemes to promote women’s education and employment and to protect their livelihoods, Indian women are spending more time on domestic duties.

Gender relations at home

The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 of the World Economic Forum reports that India stood 134th in the global rankings on women’s economic participation and opportunity of the 142 countries it rated. India’s overall ranking in Global Gender Gap was 114. India has the highest difference between women and men on the average minutes spent per day on unpaid work ‒ a difference of 300 minutes.

It is important is to realise that gender relations in the family and women’s unpaid work are inextricably linked to women’s participation in paid employment. The persistent demands of childcare and the unequal household division of labour have resulted in limited labour market choices for women and encouraged them to drop out from the labour market.

Establishing quotas alone, without focusing on women’s additional burdens, would not be enough to encourage them to participate in skill development initiatives or labour market options. Though one can argue that quotas may have short-term solutions by encouraging some of them to take up certain kinds of employment, in the long run, quotas would not be able to address their other constraints related to household care.

What would be more rewarding is on-job skill training, flexible working options for women with younger children, and the promotion of childcare services so that women are available for paid employment. Policies need to be directed towards creation of state-sponsored creches and community centres, and redistribution of household work and care between men and women.

Finally, appropriate parental leave policies should be instituted, so that fathers too can participate in childcare and the responsibility does not fall on women alone. These policies would not only encourage women to enter the workforce, but also enable them to achieve upward career mobility in the workforce.