Jobs Before Marriage Key To Raising Women Employment In India

Here's how marriage and childbirth are linked with women’s employment decisions.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>(Source: Unsplash)</p></div>
(Source: Unsplash)

Why is India one of the worst performers globally in terms of women employment? This debate has raged in recent years, and commonly provided reasons include gender norms and the lack of suitable jobs. 

This article provides fresh (and somewhat surprising) evidence on how marriage and childbirth are associated with women’s employment decisions. Second, we draw attention to an often-ignored fact that employment among young women yet-to-be-married is also low. Why is that, and what does it imply for policymaking?

We concentrate on women aged 18 to 29 using unit-level data from the National Family Health Survey, 2019-20, and the Periodic Labour Survey, 2019-20. We divide women into those who are single, married but not having a child, and married and having at least one child. A careful inspection of data suggests a break around age 23, when the trend of employed among single and married women begin to diverge. Around this age, many single women would be completing their education and taking up a job. Hence, we divide women into age brackets 18 to 23 and 24 to 29.

In both rural and urban areas, the proportion employed among single women is higher than married women across both age groups (Table 1). Unsurprisingly, the employed proportion is the highest—44%—among single women in the age group of 24 to 29 years residing in urban areas. In contrast, the employment rate is the lowest among younger married women (18-23 years) with a child. In general, the employed proportion is the lowest among married women with at least one child. 

There are a few more noteworthy observations that the analysis throws out. First, the percentage of women employed in the 24-29 age group is higher among all three categories—single women as well as married women with or without a child. 

Second, in urban areas, the employment rate among single women of 24-29 years more than doubles compared to their 18-23 years counterparts. A similar pattern holds for married women not having a child. However, the employment rate for married women with a child does not increase as much as they move to the 24-29 age group. 

The likely reasons for the lower employment rate among urban married women with a child are twofold: affordable and quality childcare is unavailable, and/or spousal income is sufficient to take care of the family; hence, a woman can afford to stay home to look after a child. Indeed, we also find that the employment rate is the lowest among relatively highly educated (at least secondary education or above) married women with a child. Compared to women with low education, these women are likely to have a spouse with higher earnings. 

Fourth, in rural areas, while the employment rate among single women is the highest, employment among the two married groups—with and without a child—is similar across both age groups. In fact, the employed proportion among rural women with a child is well above their counterparts in urban areas. Rising family expenditure may lead some women to take up paid work despite the arrival of children. Childcare also could be lesser of a concern in rural areas, with jobs such as farm work allowing more flexibility. 

Despite marriage and childcare requirements leading to a drop in employment compared to single women, what stands out is that only a minority of young single women are in employment. In 2019-20, around 67% and 48% of women aged 18 to 23 years were single in rural and urban areas, respectively. Our estimates, from the PLFS data for the same year, yield similar proportions. At one end, among all 18-year-olds, around 80% of women were not yet married, as per NHFS 2019-20 data; at the other end, among all 29-year-old women, only about 5% were not married.

Why are only about 21% of single women in India in the age group of 18-23 years employed? The answer lies in the rising education levels. The NFHS does not ask a question about the current education status. Hence, we resort to the PLFS data to uncover this information. We find that nearly half of single women in this age group report that they are in full-time education. The rest were either unemployed or in domestic work. As the proportion of single women in the group of 24 to 29 years in education drops to 11%, the employed proportion rises in rural and urban areas.

In sum, women’s education levels are rising and, along with it, the age of marriage. However, after completing higher education, but before a woman establishes herself in paid work, the majority of women get married by their mid-twenties. In effect, higher education leads to a delay in age at marriage by 2-3 years for many women and improves the marriage prospects for women, not their employment prospects. Among a small minority of women, who continue to remain single after their mid-twenties, the employment rate is higher than married women of the same age.

What does this imply for policymaking? Should the policy integrate employment with education? Should an educational qualification be granted only after completing a mandatory internship/employment component for at least one year? There need not be a gender disparity in such a policy implementation. A valid question, however, would arise about the kind of jobs that can be made accessible as a part of education. Tying up paid work with educational qualifications, nonetheless, may help more women establish themselves in paid employment before they get married. 

In sum, being in paid work for a sufficient duration before marriage seems vital to raise women's employment in India. Also, skills and autonomy gained through job experience will ease their re-entry into work later. Of course, providing affordable and quality childcare would undoubtedly lower the drop in women’s employment rates due to childbirth in urban areas.

Vidya Mahambare is a Professor of Economics and Director (Research) at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai.

Sowmya Dhanaraj is a Senior Research Fellow at Good Business Lab.

Vivek Jadhav is a Ph.D. scholar at the Madras School of Economics, Chennai.

The views expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.