Education, Caste and Women’s Work in India


Based on the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017–2018), this paper explores women’s labour market participation and employment patterns mediated by education and caste, with a focus on highly educated women. We find that women’s workforce participation follows a clear caste pattern, with the upper castes having the lowest work participation rates and this increases as we go down the caste hierarchy. These differences narrow down among highly educated women (graduate and above), particularly in urban areas. Considering the workforce participation rate (WPR) by education, female WPR by education class follows a U-shape and this holds across castes. Caste patterns persist in work status; in the female labour force in urban areas, general-caste women are more likely to be in regular employment characterised by employment stability than the other social groups. Among regular workers, Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) women are more likely to work in the public sector—a likely result of affirmative action policies of the state. However, while the policy of reservations may have worked in favour of SC/ST communities in terms of accessing public employment, it has not translated to access to good-quality jobs as caste patterns permeate into industry and occupation. Regression results show that caste and education emerge as important variables that explain women’s workforce participation, and the interaction effect of caste and education is critical in understanding women’s work participation. That accessing education even at the highest levels does not level the gap between social groups in terms of WPR implying that policies aimed towards increasing female employment therefore need to be nuanced to take into account the hetegeneous nature of the women workers, even for the highly educated segment.

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Fig. 1

Source: Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017–18

Fig. 2

Source: Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017–2018


  1. 1.

    Usual Principal and Subsidiary Status (UPSS) for 15 years and above.

  2. 2.

    31% of India’s population resides in urban areas (Census of India, 2011).

  3. 3.

    We note here that women whose principal activity is domestic duties are not considered within the labour force even if they perform certain extra-domestic economic activities such as free collection of vegetables, fire-wood, cattle feed, etc., sewing, tailoring, weaving, among others. This paper does not engage with this issue of under-estimating women’s work participation and nor with the issue of unpaid care work for women.

  4. 4.

    A recent study of 138 countries finds that while returns to education are high for both men and women, they are relatively higher for women than for men at all levels of schooling (Patrinos 2016; Psacharopoulos and Patrinos 2018).

  5. 5.

    In the context of urban India, Klasen and Pieters (2015) suggest that the U-shaped curve points towards social stigma for women to work in low skilled jobs, particularly if they are more educated or in more secure economic environments (Klasen and Pieters 2015). Das and Desai (2003) point at lack of suitable jobs for educated women due to limited availability of formal sector jobs.

  6. 6.

    This is an important question as the educational profile of the female workforce has undergone major changes; while the share of illiterates has declined, that of educated workers, including highly educated workers has increased.

  7. 7.

    Women, as members of families, produce many goods and services that benefit other members of the household. The work involved may be paid or unpaid. Certain kinds of work can contribute towards enhancing the social standing or prestige of the family vis-à-vis a reference community, although the status of the woman within the family may not be enhanced. This has been termed as ‘family status production’ by Papanek (1979).

  8. 8.

    In rural areas, however, Neff et al (2012) do not find any change in workforce participation rates among women with young children in the period that saw a decline rural female labour force participation (2004–2005 to 2009–2010). This suggests that childcare does not prevent or constrain women from entering and operating in the rural labour market (Rustagi 2013).

  9. 9.

    On the other hand, unemployment rate for men is quite high at 4.47%, and this has substantially increased from 2011–2012 to 2017–2018 for men, especially for rural areas, in sharp contrast to women.

  10. 10.

    Caveat: the circular causation between female workforce participation and household consumption may be noted.

  11. 11.

    It may be noted that the positive coefficients of the interaction terms come at the cost of decrease in the individual coefficients; the higher is the magnitude of the interaction term coefficient, the larger is the decrease in the individual coefficients.


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Datta, A., Endow, T. & Mehta, B.S. Education, Caste and Women’s Work in India. Ind. J. Labour Econ. (2020).

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  • Female labour force participation
  • Women’s work
  • Caste
  • Education