Juxtapose two facts: First, India is among the countries in the world where women’s representation in politics is the lowest. According to the Election Commission of India, women accounted for only 10.5 per cent of all members of Parliament in 2021, lower than in sub-Saharan Africa (26 per cent), and our neighbours such as Nepal (34 per cent) and Pakistan (20 per cent). Second, Indian women’s engagement in the labour market (the labour force participation rate) is abysmally low at about 25 per cent, relative to the global average of almost 50 per cent (as per World Bank estimates). Only 11 countries such as Yemen, Iran and Iraq show lower female labour force participation rates than India. The recent landmark legislation mandating the reservation of a third of parliamentary and assembly seats for women is potentially a game changer for attaining gender equity in political voices in the country. But, does increased political representation of women also have implications for women’s labour force participation? What are the channels through which women’s participation in the political arena can translate into their economic empowerment?
As a first step, let’s lay out the factors that have kept women’s economic engagement low in India. The gendered division of labour within the household, which places a disproportionately high burden of domestic work on women; the social norms that emphasise marriage rather than careers for women; the lack of safety and perceived high risk of sexual violence compounded by an absence of reliable and safe public transport infrastructure that restricts women’s physical mobility — have been highlighted as some of the more salient factors constraining women from supplying their labour. On the other hand, recent research points out that the ongoing structural shifts away from agriculture and changes in agricultural technology have pushed women out of farms — a sector that has historically accounted for the largest share of women’s labour. The absence of alternative opportunities in the non-farm sector implies that these women drop out of the labour market entirely.
Increased political representation of women has some immediate implications for loosening the supply-side constraints to women’s labour force participation in India — both directly and indirectly. Political reservation of women has a direct effect on making political and administrative careers for women more viable in the longer term.
More women are likely to enter the political fray — potentially rising from engaging with local issues to a seat in the state and national legislature. Evidence from the reservation for women sarpanches in Gram Panchayats indicates that women political decision-makers are more likely to emphasise and prioritise issues that align with the preferences and concerns of the electorate — sanitation, education (anganwadis) and health. The resulting increased emphasis on the provision of such essential public services can potentially reduce women’s time in the drudgery of daily domestic work (for example, collecting water, firewood, and child care) enabling them to take up productive work opportunities from within or outside the home. Similarly, if women political leaders vocalise concerns related to public safety and law and order, besides emphasising policies that bring a gender lens to urban infrastructure and transportation planning, it can potentially improve women’s physical mobility and thereby access to work opportunities further away from their homes.
Women’s reservation in Parliament and state legislatures is also likely to have indirect impacts on increasing women’s labour supply in the longer term. Evidence from gender quotas in panchayats suggests that exposure to women political leaders weakens traditional gender stereotypes of their role in society and within the home. Greater public visibility of women creates a role model effect for younger women, raising their aspirations. They too can enter and be successful in male-dominated fields; and be decision-makers, and it is not just acceptable but also possible for women to have visibility outside the home. Quotas for women in assemblies and Parliament can amplify the visibility of women political leaders as policymakers, potentially raising the intrinsic value of having a girl child and thereby parental investments in their human capital — education, skills and health. An entirely new generation of women with not just higher aspirations but also the requisite credentials could then enter India’s labour market.
Can increased political representation of women also influence the demand for women’s labour in our economy, increasing the opportunities for “decent” work for women in the formal, non-farm sector? There is much less empirical evidence available to provide a convincing answer to this question. However, extrapolating from what we know from quotas in Panchayats, women political leaders may be more amenable to introducing legislation that enforces gender parity in pay and work conditions in the formal sector, besides stressing policies that expand work opportunities for women in the manufacturing sector.
An anecdote from a senior woman bureaucrat summarises this issue well. She recalled that as a District Collector posted in central India in 1982, she would have weekly meetings at the district headquarters with the panchayat leaders (invariably men) on local issues facing them. On one of her occasional visits to a panchayat, she noticed that the village handpump had not been working for several months. This is a rather serious matter since this was the only source of drinking water, but one that concerned only the village women who trudged miles daily to collect water. The men who did not have to do this chore were oblivious to the issue and did not mention the breakdown of the handpump at all in their weekly interactions with the collector.
Needless to say, if women’s political representation engenders heightened sensitivity and brings a gender perspective to everyday decision-making by policy-makers, it has the potential to transform not just the social but also the economic lives of India’s women.
The writer is Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute (Delhi) and Head, Digital Labor and Women’s Economic Empowerment Programme