Labour Markets & Gender Norms

According to the ILO 2015 report, Indian women are some of the least employed in the world. The female labour force participation rate has declined from 37% in 1990 to 28% in 2015. But one third of Indian housewives express an interest in working. A major reason for the existence of this gap is gender norms. While there is little research on the direct relation between women’s labour market decisions and social norms, one theory for low FLFP rates is gender role preferences. There was a radical increase in the number of women participating in labour markets in the 20th century, across early industrialized countries. 

Labour force participation is defined for those who are considered ‘economically active’. This includes individuals who are either unemployed or employed (inclusive of part time jobs). Services and activities that are produced and consumed within households (such as preparing meals, taking care of children, etc.) are unpaid and thus are excluded from this definition. This implies that a large number of ‘working women’ are excluded from labour force statistics. It has also been noticed that when the time-cost of unpaid care work is reduced, female participation in labour markets tends to increase. 

It is imperative to recognize the various factors that affect labour supply and time allocation. One important factor is biological – maternal health. Improvements in this sector have greatly enhanced women’s ability to work and has increased FLFP. Lower fertility rates also increase FLFP. In many developing countries, fertility is falling at fast rates. Since it is antithetical to promote low fertility rates to enhance female agency, one should consider other factors such as child care and other family-oriented policies. There is empirical evidence on the direct relationship between female employment and higher public spending on family benefits. 

Social and gender norms have an important effect on FLFP. There is stigma attached to women working outside the home. In many countries, gender roles are deeply institutionalized and persistent. Societal norms about women working, many a times, have economic backing that is no longer rational, or is obsolete. Thus, a lot of it is religious or cultural, rather than economic. While activism, intergenerational (un)learning processes, feminist movements, and exposure to alternative norms have increased the speed with which change happens in society, a lot needs to be done with respect to institutional reforms and structural changes too. 

There has been a noted U-shaped relationship between years of education and FLFP, i.e., at low education and income levels women work to support the family. But if men start earning more, women tend to shift to unpaid household work. At the bottom level of the U-shaped curve are women who are literate and have finished some level of schooling but stay out of the labour market due to demand constraints and societal norms. Finally, at the upper right part of the U-shape are women who rejoin the workforce because of increased demand and better skill training. According to a research by economists Stephan Klasen and Janneke Pieters, the U-shaped curve is explained by the fact that illiterate women have high FLFP (above 20 percent) and FLFP is highest among university graduates (around 25 percent). This is lowest among literate women who have finished some level of schooling, at a shocking range of 10-15 percent. The jobless growth paradigm that has existed in India for the past decade has just added on to this problem. 

Suggested policy solutions for tackling low FLFP rates include safer public transport and public spaces, which is seen in the form of reserved coaches for women in many countries. In a study of the Delhi metro system, Seki and Yamada (2020) found that increased proximity to metro stations increased female employment, but had no such effects on male employment. Shifting patriarchal norms is also essential. In the US, many organizations are working to bring more women into STEM fields are supported by multiple firms. Giving women more financial control also helps erode gender norms. In many countries, the status quo policy of transferring cash to the male member of the household is being questioned. It has also been found that shifting their wages into their own bank accounts increases control over their earnings. Policies that provide solutions for child care are also essential to increase female employment. All these policy measures would help increase FLFP, while empowering women to be in the labour force. 

While there has been a shift from agriculture related roles to other jobs in other sectors, there has been a lack of job opportunities for women, even among the fast-growing sectors. A number of studies have suggested that the amount of women’s work is mis-measured, i.e., many women work as unpaid family members and their work is classified under domestic duties. Thus, the falling FLFP rates might be misleading. But low FLFP is still a major issue that needs to be solved and policy measures and a few nudges might help. 


Erica M. Field & Rohini Pande & Natalia Rigol & Simone G. Schaner & Charity Troyer Moore, 2019. “On Her Own Account: How Strengthening Women’s Financial Control Affects Labor Supply and Gender Norms,” NBER Working Papers 26294, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

Seema Jayachandran (2020), Social norms as a barrier to Women’s employment in Developing countries. Available at:

 at Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Sandra Tzvetkova (October, 2017), Working women: Key facts and trends in female labour force participation. Available at :

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.