India’s women are staying in school longer – but not for their careers


DHANARUA, India – Indian women have been attending schools and universities like never before, and female education levels in the country are a success story.

Yet the percentage of women in the workforce has decreased over time.

“The question is, if you aren’t getting returns in the labor market for women’s education, why do people educate their daughters?” asked Sonalde Desai, a University of Maryland sociology professor who leads one of the most important household surveys in India.

Researchers like Desai believe they now have an explanation. They have documented how rising education levels for women are largely driven by higher returns in the marriage market, not by improved job prospects. Families of sons are increasingly looking for educated daughters-in-law – not so that they can rake in salaries, but so they can produce highly educated children, new academic literature says.

“What I see is basically the creation of educated housewives,” said Desai, whose research found that very few other countries saw this phenomenon.

Sudha Kumari, who lives in one of India’s poorest states, said she believes her three daughters need a bachelor’s degree to find suitable husbands. In their dimly lit home on the outskirts of Patna, the capital of Bihar state, she watches as her eldest leans over her youngest, correcting her handwriting.

Her mother-in-law, Kusum Devi, explains why she and her husband financed Kumari’s bachelor’s program: “We only wanted an educated daughter-in-law. Everyone does the same now.”

Devi, a 60-year-old who never attended school, beams with pride because both of her daughters-in-law’s studies have led to educated grandchildren.

“Having an educated woman at home is now a status symbol,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a political economist at the Center for Policy Research.

In a country where gender norms shift slowly, education has been an anomaly. Families may still prefer sons over daughters. Domestic violence continues to take a toll. But now, tertiary education sees more women than men, and female literacy rates have made notable strides.

It’s “huge educational empowerment,” said Amit Basole, a labor economist at Azim Premji University. “But there is a disconnect between that and employment.”

Oxford researchers found that parents’ investment in their daughters’ education across the western state of Rajasthan is notably driven by “perceived marriage market returns.”

“Something that struck me in the focus groups,” said Alison Andrews, one of the associate professors involved in the research paper, “is the distinction of wanting a daughter-in-law who is educated but without work ambitions. These things are seen as qualitatively different.”

When Kumari wanted to apply for a job that would require out-of-state travel, she saw pushback from her in-laws and husband. She ultimately agreed. “It would have been too difficult. I have to feed the family, oversee their education,” Kumari said with an easy smile.

“First, the kids should study. The job comes second,” Devi said.

If India’s increasing working-age population is to spur significant economic growth, the country must address the stagnant size of the female workforce, economists say. India’s labor force participation rate – or the share of the working-age population in the labor force – among women has steadily dipped since the early 1990s, even as the country’s economy ballooned.

Now, that rate is one of the 15 lowest in the world. Only 1 in 4 working-age women in India are in the workforce. In 2000, it was 1 in 3.

Most countries see a “child penalty” – where women tend to drop out of the labor market after having a child. But Indian women see a “marriage penalty,” because they have to migrate into new families that often restrict their mobility.

The hotly debated challenge, some academics say, is rooted in not just household norms, but also external problems: a lack of jobs, employer bias, gender-segregated work and even inadequate transportation options.

“Educational progress was externally driven. The government made it a priority,” said Ashwini Deshpande, an economics professor at Ashoka University. “When external constraints are eased, you see results.”

Indeed, stagnant salaries are not able to persuade women to sacrifice the rise in “home productivity” that comes with education as well, said Farzana Afridi, a development economist at the Indian Statistical Institute.

“Women decide how much time they want to spend at home versus the labor market,” Afridi said. “The wages available haven’t kept up with the returns you get from home investment: schooling, health, food, nutrition.”

Kumari knows many families that forbid their daughters-in-law to work, but sees the lack of job opportunities as a larger factor. She counts herself lucky that she found a job with Bihar’s rural development department, with an office that sits adjacent to her neighborhood cluster of slum homes.

While she spends part of her time there, her husband farms their land farther away. Kumari said part of the reason for the professional gap is that she completed a bachelor’s degree while her husband only finished 12th standard.

Four decades ago, more than 90 percent of husbands were more educated than their wives. Now, the number is only at 60 percent, according to Desai’s research.

Desai, who grew up with cousins who forfeited their college exams so that their education wouldn’t exceed that of their husbands, was shocked when her team found that a substantial share of women were now marrying men with a much lower level of education.

“I said, ‘This is not possible.'” They ran the numbers again, finding the same result, including the fact that women’s rising education levels aren’t enough to explain the trend.

“If we were seeing educational equality between partners in India, I wouldn’t have been surprised. What you’re documenting here is not just equality, but superiority,” Desai said. “Nothing else has changed. Women are not marrying men with a lower income level, younger men or lower castes. The only area where we are seeing change is education.”

Still, her research shows that educational progress among women has done little to change who the breadwinner is in the family.

As Kumari and Devi meandered through their simple home, one of the baby goats from their field persistently followed them. Outside, Devi’s other daughter-in-law prepared cow dung to layer on the bricks of their outdoor kitchen, near two grazing cows.

Nibha Devi is cynical about the money and effort expended to educate her until 12th grade. “What has my education given me? I work at home all day,” she said.

With a grimace, she ran behind the house to fill a bucket of water. “Educated or not, it ends up going to waste.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here