20/12/2016 4:21 PM IST | Updated 21/12/2016 10:39 AM IST

India Has One Of The World's Worst Gender Gaps in Wages

Women are more educated than ever but are still rare in high-paying jobs.

Bartosz Hadyniak
Tamil women plucking tea leaves in Southern India

Women are paid 33% less than men in hourly wages in India, one of the largest such gender gaps in the world, new data from the International Labour Organisation shows.

Among major economies, only South Korea does slightly worse, data from ILO's Global Wage Report 2016 released last week shows. Conventional wisdom has been that women have different educational attainment levels from men and are more likely to have career breaks that lead to lower levels of accumulated work experience, the ILO says. But as education gaps have narrowed, particularly in developed countries, it has become clear that this is not a full explanation. Women tend to get segregated into occupations associated with "feminine" attributes like caregiving, and consequently these become undervalued professions, the report says. In India as well, the gap in educational attainments of men and women has narrowed sharply; the growth in women graduates was twice that of male graduates in the last decade, Census data shows.

Women make up 63% of the lowest earning Indians but just 15% of the highest paid ones. This despite the fact that the 2011 Census showed that among recent graduates in their early 20s, there are now more female doctors and teachers than male, and there are now more female post-graduates in non-technical fields than men. In the Russian Federation, for comparison, women make up over 40% of the highest paid workers.

Wage discrimination is particularly strong in the bottom end of the wage distribution where women are concentrated, but there has been some narrowing of the wage gap here on account of the MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] and better awareness of the minimum wage, says Xavier Estupinan, wages specialist at the ILO in Delhi. At the higher end the wage gap is lower but there are much fewer women: "Given the higher probability of dropping out of the labour market (when having children), employers usually discriminate against women because they expect future interruptions; and this is the biggest barrier for even accessing labour market," Estupinan says. Women should be encouraged to access these jobs, however, where education pays higher returns, he adds.

Wage inequality in India goes beyond the gender dimension alone. The lowest-paid half of the country receives 17.1% of all wages paid out, while the top 10% get 42.7% of all wages. Only South Africa is more unequal.

However, things are not getting worse; average wages grew by 60% in India over the last decade (though they more than doubled in China), and wage inequality decreased.