Women in urban India want to work but are not in the labour force in significant numbers, according to a 2019 survey of married women across Delhi led by the Indian Statistical Institute. Of the 1,500 married couples surveyed, 74% of the women were neither working nor looking for jobs – this, despite the fact that the husbands of most of these women wanted them to work and add to the family income.

The female labour participation rate in India was 37% in 2022-’23, up from 23.3% in 2017-’18, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey. India has the 13th lowest female labour force participation rate among the 187 countries for which data are available for 2022.

Gendered access to information, inability of employers to meet the women’s salary demands, and restrictions on mobility are some of the reasons behind the low participation of women in the workforce, found the 2019 survey.

While digital platforms provide information on job vacancies, women either have limited access to digital devices or do not know how to optimally use these devices (e.g. smartphones), which is required for these platforms, finds a new study under the Digital Platforms and Women’s Economic Empowerment, or DP-WEE, programme at IFMR-LEAD and the Indian Statistical Institute.

Fewer jobs, unfulfilling opportunities

Even as the availability of jobs is a well-acknowledged constraint in India for both women and men, there is less awareness of the significant gender differences in access to information about work opportunities.

Women’s networks are more family-centric and domestic-oriented relative to men: 96% of the wives’ (18-45 years of age) peer networks comprised non-co-resident relatives and neighbours (mostly other women), in contrast to only 56% for husbands in the urban neighborhoods of Delhi.

This distinction results in fewer social connections for women that can help them access information on job vacancies – their social connections are less likely to be employed, and consequently, not in a position to provide job referrals.

Even when women are able to obtain information about employment opportunities, they apply to fewer types of jobs relative to men, the study found. Additionally, there exists a large mismatch between their current earnings and desired earnings: Data from an app-based job portal show that women expect 133% higher than the average earnings of working women, while men’s wage expectations were more reasonable – 8% higher than their current wages. This could be one reason for acceptance of fewer job offers.

Not only is women’s mobility restricted due to social norms and safety concerns, women also prefer to travel shorter distances to work. Amongst those actively looking for work, women limit job search to work opportunities within three kilometres of their residence as opposed to men who are willing to consider jobs more than six km away, the study found.

“I applied for an internship online and received an interview call, but my parents weren’t comfortable sending me to a distant location by myself,” said a 21-year-old psychology graduate from Delhi University, a resident of Dwarka in Delhi.

Women continue to rely on the traditional modes of searching for jobs. Although both female and male job seekers use offline or worksite visits as a method of job search, data indicate that men use multiple job search methods relative to women.

Smartphone use, digital divide

Information gaps and inefficient job search mechanisms apply more strongly in the case of women in India. Leveraging the spread of technology, digital labour platforms have the potential to improve employment outcomes by bringing information on job opportunities to the doorstep, embedding skilling, and enabling matching of workers and jobs at scale for women, as IndiaSpend reported in October last year.

However, existing data reveal that there are several constraints to using digital platforms like Apna, QJobs, Helpers Near Me and others to bridge the gender divide in job information and search.

At the forefront of this issue is the unequal access to digital technology, particularly smartphones, which are often essential for applying to jobs on these platforms. Smartphone ownership has increased across genders over the years, but more for men than women in India, shows the 2022 GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report.

A comparison of two job search portals – one that requires only a feature phone and another that cannot be used without a smartphone – underlines the impact of the gender divide in smartphone ownership on the potential for digitally bringing work opportunities closer to women. A 2019 study found that 57% of the job seekers on the feature phone platform were women, as compared to just 20% of the registered users–in a 2023 survey–on the platform requiring smartphones.

A 32-year-old married woman in Patparganj in Delhi said she could not use the job search app well. “Hamein manpasand job profile ka filter update karna nahin aata hai (I don’t know how to update the filter for preferred job profiles).”

Data from urban blue-collar workers registered on digital job platforms reveal significant gender disparities in smartphone technology usage among smartphone owners. Men tend to utilise these devices for a greater variety of purposes, including calls, WhatsApp, Google searches, Facebook, utilities (online payment, online banking, online shopping, and ticket booking), compared to women, who are more likely to use them for entertainment (YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok). Further, men use their smartphones for almost an hour more per day than women.

Once they registered, women were less active than men when it came to searching for jobs, applying for jobs or updating their profiles, the study found through analysis of over six years of data (July 2016-December 2022) comprising approximately 60,000 individuals (men and women) from a job-matching platform.

Only 33% of female profiles were in active status, compared to 46% of the male profiles. The majority of the female profiles remained in “Do Not Disturb” status for various reasons, including not wanting to receive further calls from the platform or potential employer.

Women require more handholding to register, develop their profile and search for specific types of jobs on these platforms, shows anecdotal evidence from an ongoing survey of over 3,000 individuals who aspire to work. This further restricts their usage of the platform to get preferred jobs, even if they are able to cross the hurdle of digital access.

Farzana Afridi and Nikita Sangwan are the authors of the study quoted in this piece.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.