In the first four months of 2017, a nugget of information went by unnoticed: while jobs for men increased by 0.9 million, 2.4 million women fell off the employment map, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a think tank.

“Only women suffer when there’s an employment problem,” said Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The trend for this year points to a continuing story of Indian women increasingly clocking out of the workplace.

It might not seem like it at first glance. You see women employed everywhere, in ad agencies and start-ups, on construction sites and in fields, in shops and restaurants, in schools and anganwadis, flying airplanes and driving taxis.

Yet, if the number of women who quit jobs in India between 2004-’05 and 2011-’12 (the last year for which census data is available), was a city, it would, at 19.6 million, be the third-most populated in the world, after Shanghai and Beijing.

Only 27% Indian women are currently in the labour force. Among G-20 countries, only Saudi Arabia is worse, IndiaSpend reported on April 9, 2016. Within South Asia in 2013, India had the lowest rate of female employment after Pakistan. In over two decades preceding 2013, female labour force participation in India fell from 34.8% to 27%, according to an April World Bank report.

Source: World Bank (2015)

India’s female labour force participation rate is highest among illiterates and college graduates in both rural and urban areas, according to this March World Bank report, which analysed government data from 2004-’05 to 2011-’12. These two groups, illiterates and those with college education, are also the groups that experienced the largest drops in female labour force participation rates over this period.

There are no indications that it’s getting better.

Much of this slide has come in the post liberalisation years, when you would imagine that a growing economy would fling open doors of opportunity. At roughly the same time that women were quitting jobs, an additional 24.3 million men went to work, according to an April World Bank report, Precarious Drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labour Force Participation in India.

Even more inexplicably, women went missing from the workplace at precisely the same time that girls were making massive advances in education. The enrolment rate of girls in elementary education is nearly 100%. In higher education, it’s nudged up from just 7.5% in 2002-’03 to 20% in 2012-’13.

Over the next few months IndiaSpend will track declining female labour force participation through on-the-ground reports that seek to understand the various constraints that inhibit their employment and participation in the workforce.

Education isn’t leading to jobs

The logical link that education should lead to jobs is broken in India. In rural India, 67% of girls who are graduates do not work. In towns and cities, 68.3% of women who graduate don’t have paid jobs, says a 2015 report by the United Nations Development Programme,Women’s Voices, Employment and Entrepreneurship in India.

“More girls are being educated than boys,” said Pronab Sen, country head for the International Growth Centre’s India Central Programme and the country’s first chief statistician. “You have to ask, ‘where are they going and what are they doing?’”

Why should we care?

If women participated in the economy on a par with men, India could increase GDP by up to 60%, or $2.9 trillion, by 2025, according to a 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, a think tank. At present, women contribute a mere 17% to the country’s GDP, well below the global average of 37%.

Source: World Bank, Labour Bureau- Employment Unemployment Survey, All India Survey on Higher Education

Women’s earnings are also linked to their personal well-being. Quite simply, a woman who brings money into the house is likely to have greater clout and status in that family. Improved labour market prospects for daughters and daughters-in-law could lead to greater investment in their education and health.

But perhaps, most important, it matters because women want paid jobs. The 2011 National Sample Survey found that over a third of women in urban India and half in rural areas who engage mainly in housework want a paying job.

So, if women want jobs, why are they quitting? What’s holding them back?

Web of constraints

Ongoing research and IndiaSpend’s own on-the-ground reporting suggests a complex web of constraints that keep women away from the workplace.

Chief amongst these is the issue of women’s agency.

A man is expected to have a paid job. When he seeks one, he needs nobody’s permission. Girls and women, on the other hand, almost without exception must have the permission of their fathers, brothers, husbands and in some cases even village panchayats in order to work or even learn skills that will make them employable.

In Haryana’s Jhajjar district, Jyoti Kadian, currently employed in a steel factory, will be getting married in November to a navy man who has told her he has no objections to her working – but only in a government job. “I’m trying to get one, but it’s not easy,” said Kadian, conscious that time is running out.

In Mumbai, Naseema Sheikh, the daughter of a plumber, joined a four-month beauty training course after completing Class 12. When she received a job offer from a beauty salon, her brother said there was no need for her to work. “He says, ‘I am providing for you so what need is there for you to go so far to work?’” she said.

In an Aurangabad slum, a truck driver tells me why he refused permission to let his 19-year-old daughter work in a restaurant after she completed a two-month hospitality course with Pratham Institute. “Next thing you know, she will be running off to have a love marriage, and I will not be able to show my face anywhere,” he said. In the small one-room house where he lives with five daughters and a son, his wife said not a word. Asked what she felt about a working daughter, she shrugged her shoulders and then got up to make tea.

When her husband got transferred to Mizoram, patent attorney Priyadarshini Gauri found herself without a job after working for nine years. “I would have liked some remote working opportunities in my field but there were none,” she said. While she waits for his three-year posting to end, she has had a baby, enrolled in a masters in history and is learning to play the guitar.

“I miss those good old days when you know you’ve done terrific work,” she said in an email interview. “Being employed gives you a validation that no amount of ‘home-making’ can.”

Patriarchy, cultural and social attitudes exist all over India. But in many states in the North, there’s a feeling of shame if a man’s wife works, said Pronab Sen. Unsurprisingly, Bihar, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab report the lowest rates of female labour force participation, whereas hill states such as Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh, where men have historically migrated out for work, leaving women in charge of village economies, female labour force participation is high.

Family and responsibility for household work are other serious constraints. Women either don’t accept jobs, or quit because of “family reasons” found a 2016 study of young, single women by Evidence for Policy Design, a team of Harvard faculty researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Few woman-friendly workplaces

Social norms about appropriate behaviour for women and the enforcement of these norms by parents, in-laws and husbands dictates their ability to seek employment. The 2011 Indian Human Development Survey finds that a sizeable number of women need to take permission from a family member to even go to the market or health centre, said Rohini Pande of Harvard Kennedy School. “In the end, it’s pretty difficult to look for a job if you can’t leave the house alone,” she said.

Even when women are “allowed” to work, there are conditions that must be met. Is the job close to home? Are there fixed working hours that will allow her to be back in time to cook the dinner and put the kids to bed? Is safe and inexpensive public transportation available?

Safety is emerging as a key concern, said Farzana Afridi, associate professor with the Indian Statistical Institute. Public spaces are dominated by men. Moreover, there’s a dire shortage of infrastructure that would enable women’s participation in the workplace – hostels for working women and crèches for their children, for instance.

“Managements will often tell you how women make for very reliable employees with low absenteeism and attrition rates,” said Afridi. “But not many are prepared to provide the infrastructure that would enable their fuller participation.”

Medha Uniyal, programme director of the Pratham Institute was more blunt: “When you have women on the payroll, you are legally required to provide facilities like a crèche. So, a lot of employers have a clear mandate of not hiring women.”

The role of companies in nurturing gender diversity certainly calls for scrutiny. After women manage to convince their families to allow them work, they often encounter yet another hurdle: companies that don’t want to hire them. “There is a clear case of discrimination by companies that give women a raw deal,” said Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Mahesh Vyas.

Finally, women themselves seem inclined to choose trades that are traditionally considered women oriented: beauty and healthcare for instance. “Social norms and a lack of information often limit women’s opportunities to so-called traditional jobs, closely linked to typical ideas of what women can and cannot do,” said Clement Chauvet, chief of skills and business development, UNDP.

Men ride the growth wave

Unfortunately, sectors with the fastest growth and maximum hiring – telecom, banking and the core sectors – are dominated by men. In telecom, 83.84% of all employees are men; 78.79% in banking, financial services and insurance and 74.75% in core sectors like oil and gas, power, steel and minerals, according to the India Skills Report 2017. Women themselves show a clear preference for trades that are traditionally ‘women oriented’: beauty and healthcare for instance, said Clement Chauvet, UNDP’s chief of skills and development.

An obvious solution is skilling. The prime minister’s Skill India Mission is targeted to train over 400 million people by 2022.

But there’s a mismatch between vocational skills programmes, aspiration and the job market. “It’s important that we make sure we skill young people to meet what industry demands,” said Chauvet.

Moreover, existing skilling programmes are simply too small to count, said International Growth Centre’s Sen. The bulk of skilling programmes take place as apprenticeships with ustads or in small-scale industries that are male dominated and where fathers and husbands do not like sending their girls and wives.

Another solution would be to make it incumbent upon companies to disclose gender diversity in hiring employees. “I’m not suggesting there should be reservation. But companies that function on shareholder money and bank loans should be made to disclose the gender breakup of their employees,” said Vyas.

All women work. Much of it – fetching firewood and water, cooking and cleaning, taking care of children and the elderly in India – is unpaid and unrecognised.

Very often, women seek employment when there is poverty and they must contribute to the household income just to survive. But when household incomes increase, they might consider the option of quitting paid work. Typically, when economies expand and the services sector grows, they get back into the workforce.

This upswing of what economists call the ‘U-curve’ hasn’t happened yet. When it will – or even if — is the big question.

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