Human capital attainment and female labor force participation--the Kerala puzzle.

Author:Mitra, Aparna

An important policy prescription for improving the status of women in India is to improve their educational attainment. Human capital theory suggests that education and training are significant determinants of employment and earnings. Therefore, it is desirable that Indian women acquire the necessary skills that would enhance their employment and earnings capacity in the labor market as well as improving their status within the household. While the overall literacy rate and educational attainment among Indian women are low compared to those of developed countries, there have been substantial improvements in the human capital attainment of Indian women over the past few years. Yet women in India are still confined to casual labor or marginal work at home or in the field, while men occupy more lucrative jobs. Educated unemployment is widely prevalent among both men and women in India. This is especially puzzling when we focus on the state of Kerala. Kerala ranks first among Indian states in women's literacy rates and in both Human Development and Gender Development Index. Yet the unemployment rate among both men and women in Kerala is very high, and educated unemployment is widely prevalent.

Recently, there has been growing discomfort with the concept of the "Kerala model," partly due to the anomalous relationship between high educational attainment and low labor force participation of Kerala women in the labor market. The objective of this study is to probe into this paradox in order to have a better understanding of the relationship between education and employment in the context of the state of Kerala. It is not enough to focus on literacy and employment without probing into the nature of human capital investment made by women in Kerala as well as the specific skills that are demanded by employers in the labor market. At the same time, the social and cultural environment of this particular state also needs to be studied in order to understand the nature of gender relations and the subsequent effects in educational attainment and labor market status of women.

Ideally, the macro data provided by Census of India and the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) that will be the primary focus of this study should be augmented with detailed micro-level data in order to explain this apparent paradox in Kerala. Unfortunately, such micro-level data are extremely sparse. With limited data, this paper attempts to analyze the linkages between human capital attainment, occupational choice, and the labor market status of women in Kerala. In the next section we focus on the literacy rate, educational attainment, and status of women in Kerala. This is followed by a discussion related to the work participation rates of women in Kerala. Finally, we attempt to explain the paradox of high educational attainment and high unemployment rates of Kerala women by focusing on the demand and supply side of the labor market as well as the social and cultural environment.

Literacy, Educational Attainment, and Human Development in Kerala

Table 1 shows the female literacy rate in India as reported by the 2001 census. While the overall female literacy rate in India is 54.16 percent, the different states and union territories exhibit significant differences in female literacy rates. The state of Bihar ranks the lowest while Kerala ranks the highest in female literacy rates in the country.

Table 2 (columns 3, 4, and 5) shows the 2001 census data on male and female literacy rates and the gender gap in literacy across all the districts in Kerala. While the overall literacy rate for both males and females is uniformly high compared with the states in India, the districts of Kannur, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam, Alappuzha, and Pathanamthitta exhibit some of the highest female literacy rates in the state of Kerala (column 4). What is particularly interesting is that while the overall rural female literacy rate in India is 46.58 percent (Census of India 2001), the female literacy rate in rural Kerala exceeds 90 percent in the above districts. This makes Kerala an outlier among all Indian states. The gender disparity in literacy rate in Kerala is negligible compared with other Indian states. The gender gap in literacy in Kerala (as shown in column 5) is highest in the district of Kasaragod (11.2 percent), while the rate is lowest in the districts of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta (3 percent).

Table 3 shows the level of educational attainment for both males and females in Kerala. The table shows that the gender disparity in education at every stage is very low.

From the beginning of the century, female educational attainment in the state has been very high as the government of Kerala placed high priority on educational spending. Literacy was much higher than anywhere in India as early as the eighteenth century (Jeffrey 1987). Table 4 compares the percentage of budget allocated for different categories of educational spending for both India and Kerala for the period 1996-1997. As shown in the table, the state of Kerala spends more on education at every level compared with India in general, with the highest percentage allocated for elementary education and the lowest for technical education.

In order to understand the apparent paradox of high unemployment and high literacy and educational attainment of women in Kerala, the quality of education acquired by Kerala women should also be analyzed in detail. Therefore, we need to focus on the nature of investment made by women in colleges and universities and subsequently their occupational choices. While detailed data related to this important aspect of education is sparse, in general we find that women in India and in Kerala are still concentrated in the arts and education while lagging behind in technical fields such as engineering and sciences. Overall, in India, 88 percent of women in higher education are confined to majors in arts and commerce, while only 1 percent of women choose occupations such as engineering. Women choose low-paying occupations such as school teachers, nurses, clerks, and typists (UNESCO 1999). From the limited data that we could find, it seems that the majority of females in Kerala are confined to low-paying occupations such as clerks, nurses, and teachers. Table 5 shows the occupational classification of workers who are not cultivators or agricultural laborers.

It is surprising that women in Kerala continue to choose traditional female occupations that are mostly low paying, in light of the fact that Kerala ranks first among Indian states in Human Development and Gender Development Index. Women in Kerala have always enjoyed a better status in society than their female counterparts in the rest of India (Dreze and Sen 1996). While a male child is typically considered to be more valuable than a female child in India, the sex ratio (females/1000 males) in Kerala shows (table 2, column 6) a different scenario. Except for the districts of Wayanad and Idukki, the ratio of females to males in all the districts of Kerala exceeds 1000. What is remarkable is that this pattern is consistent in both rural and urban areas. The corresponding national sex ratio in India as reported in Census 2001 is 933. Ever since censuses have been conducted in India, Kerala women have outnumbered men (Jeffrey 1987). The pride and independence among the matrilineal women of Kerala has instilled in them the desire to achieve high literacy and educational attainment. It is natural that educated women in Kerala prefer to be employed in the skilled white-collar sector of the labor market. This becomes clear as we analyze the atypical employment trends among the educated females in Kerala in the next section.

Labor Force Participation of Women in Kerala

Unemployment among Educated Males and Females in Kerala

There exists chronic unemployment among the educated females in Kerala. Table 6(A) shows the unemployment rate of the educated labor force in Kerala and in India during 1983 and 1987-88. The data come from the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), which categorizes "Usual Principal Status" as being in the labor force for more than six months preceding the date of survey. During 1987-88, urban unemployment among females who had a college degree was 19.6 percent while the unemployment rate among females with a secondary education was 52.7 percent. The corresponding rates for men were 7.3 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively. The unemployment rate among females in rural areas is much higher than the unemployment rate in urban areas and indicates even fewer opportunities for women. During 1987-88, rural unemployment among female graduates was 45 percent while the unemployment rate among females with a secondary education was 60 percent. The higher unemployment rate among educated rural women can partly be attributed to the...

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