Young women in urban India are working in ever larger numbers. Every 1 out of 4 women between the age of 20 and 34 years was working in 2012; compared to merely one in 10 seven years before, as per the latest data from India Human Development surveys. This is a remarkable jump in employment.
The largest increase in working women has come from the demographic of young, educated, single women and young mothers. We dug deeper into how women’s decision to work changes over time by tracking a cohort of around 14,000 women in urban India. Are more women able to take up a job when they have a small child to care for? Only 12% of women with a child of less than 2 years of age were working in 2005. After their child grew up, around 26% of them were working in 2012.
Despite this increase, three out of four urban women of working age do not work outside of their homes. How then do we encourage even more women to join the workforce if they wish to do so?
A policy such as the new maternity law alone is unlikely to work. Most of the employment continues to be in the informal sector where the new law is not binding. In any case, not many employers would be willing to add young women to the workforce with so much additional financial burden. Such a policy is primarily useful for women who are already in employment and looking to start a family. And even if it benefits them, what happens when a child turns six months old?
The single most critical factor that will enable young women to continue working is adequate, reliable and affordable childcare. There is strong evidence from other countries that government policies that support early education and childcare increase labour force participation of women and reduces gender gaps.
Traditionally, grandparents have been the primary source of childcare in India. Increased labour mobility in recent years has resulted in young families moving away from their native places. The consequent loss of proximity to grandparents means a loss of childcare as well.
Evidence from our analysis suggests that in villages where anganwadis (government-sponsored childcare) function well, more women are able to take up non-farm jobs. Currently, India’s ministry of women and child development is working on a national programme for creche and day care facilities for children. It aims to provide such facilities within one and half kilometres from either the home of child or the workplace of the mother. While it is important that such facilities are close by, it is even more critical that they meet certain mandatory quality standards and are considered safe for the child.
A good childcare programme is also an investment into a child’s future. Investing in early childcare is similar to investing for long-term returns. Such a policy will pay off handsomely not only for mothers in the short run, but also for India’s future over the long term.
The nature and structure of jobs are also changing rapidly. In the past, being physically present at a workplace and for long hours was necessary in a number of industries such as finance and banking, healthcare, and law. Technology is now allowing for possibilities of flexible work times even in these industries. Nonetheless, physical presence at work is required and valued a great deal.
Indian family life is changing dramatically and the public policy has failed to keep pace with it. It’s an area we cannot afford to neglect any longer.