workforce gender parity - a four point agenda for India’s surge

workforce gender parity - a four point agenda for india’s surge

What can achieve an 18 percent increase over business-as-usual GDP, or $770 billion, for India? What can unleash the economic potential to be a powerful engine of global growth for the country?

The ‘Open Sesame’ answer lies in two simple words – gender parity.

Certainly, this is both a universal objective and issue. But India has its specific urgency – and its specific set of challenges. For one, achieving this goal can lift millions of women out of poverty and boost the country’s dynamic growth story. The multi-layered aspects of gender parity in India goes beyond mere gender divide - and far ahead than a superficial perspective on inclusion. It is an integrated and inter-woven game-changing opportunity for India’s growth.

For India, the distance it has to run is also much longer. The country ranks today as one of the six countries furthest from gender parity in work in the Asia Pacific region – and stands alongside Bangladesh, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, and South Korea. And according to ILO’s Global Wage Report 2018-19, women in India are paid most unequally – a 34 percent wage gap exists between men and women as far as average wages go.

What can India do to lift herself from this unflattering position – even as it aims to compete for recognition as the talent hub of the world?

The priorities are both clear and urgent. And it is a joint responsibility of organizations and policy makers to move the needle in four vital areas of transformation.

#1 – Ensure greater labor force participation of women in quality jobs

Despite no restricting legal mandates, women account for only 25 percent of the Indian labor force. An ILO estimate shows that India’s women to men participation ratio in the workplace dropped to 28.5 percent from 44 percent between 2005 and 2017. What is more alarming is that

  • Urban women in India show a lower average participation than those in rural areas
  • Secondary-level educated women show lower participation rates than the non-secondary educated ones

The issue is not just about numbers, it is about the quality of their labor-force participation. The equation of 97 percent of women in low paying work in the informal sector needs to be changed.

India should create a far higher number of jobs in the formal and organized sector, with attractive work options and better levels of education. Only then can we hope to eliminate the debilitating societal norms that look at women’s role as primary caregivers in the home. This is why women in low income households work (by sheer necessity) while in more affluent homes (and with diminished economic needs), women tend to give up working to look after the family.

Women’s labor-force participation tends to follow a U-shaped curve in
which women in very low-income households work by necessity and often in low-paid agriculture or low-productivity informal jobs, but then, as families become more prosperous and economic necessity diminishes, their participation tends to fall; when there is less economic need to work for pay, societal norms favouring women’s role as caregivers in the home come to the fore. This effect reverses only when women have more attractive work and pay options.

Creation of better-paid jobs in the formal sector with innovative work options (facilitated by higher levels of education), will ensure retention and progress of women into leading roles and responsibilities.

#2 - Address women’s under-representation in business leadership positions

Only 4 percent of women hold senior management roles in India, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. To say that this is all about the proverbial glass ceiling would be grossly understating the multiple reasons that contribute to this anomaly. Let us trace the journey to management positions in women. 43 percent of tertiary-level women graduates translate to only 25 percent of entry- level professionals. This peters down to 16 percent when it moves to middle management roles and finally 4 percent in senior management.

The reasons for this also provide clues to the actions that organizations need to take. Can they

  • Look more creatively at rewriting the performance model that demands women to be constantly available and geographically mobile? Especially with technology facilitating remote working conditions?
  • Enable women to balance their work-life equation with pro-family support policies (that include policies for their working partners as well)? 
  • Correct the gender wage gap (that is the highest in India) that pays women 30 percent less than men?
  • Design more effective measures to recruit, retain, promote, and develop women – and motivate them to make pro-work choices?
  • Have a gender-diverse leadership that act as role models for women professionals?

In essence, providing both women and men with equal freedom to choose how they can together balance home, career and children is essential. If organizations can help defeat gender biases due to societal attitudes, progress on gender parity can be unlocked.

 #3 – Make technology (especially digital technology) more accessible to women

If access to technology has transformed nations and businesses, it can equally unleash economic benefits for women. It can promote entrepreneurship amongst women and minimize, if not eliminate significant work barriers. The surge in e-commerce and gig economy can be advantageously leveraged to step ahead as successful professionals by providing extended networks and reach to diverse markets. If Indonesia can showcase a success story of women-owned MSMEs generating 35 percent of e-commerce revenue, India can do as well or even better – given the boost provided to entrepreneurship. Similarly, digital banking can provide a more equitable playing field for women to access financial services.

Gender inclusivity in digital capabilities is extremely vital in the face of disruptive changes that are sweeping the business landscape. It can as easily accelerate progress of parity and it can isolate and leave them behind.

#4 – Reform societal attitudes towards women

From a better political representation of women to tackling the issue of violence against them, it needs concerted and collaborative action between governments, media and India Inc.

Such coordinated actions can bust the myth that

  • It is more important for boys than girls to have university
  • Men are more suited for STEM-related jobs than women 
  • Children suffer when mothers go to work
  • It is acceptable for women to be paid lesser than men for the same work
  • Promotions to women can be held back when they take time off for family
  • Women earning more than their husbands is detrimental to family harmony

This can ultimately lead to ensuring higher investments and public spending on better skilling programs for women, improved commuting infrastructure, better childcare facilities, and effective legal protections at the workplace.

In the last decade. India has made significant advances towards gender parity – such as opening access for education, driving decline in maternal mortality, laws to protect women in the workplace, provide financial inclusion and open access to entrepreneurship loans, etc. Today and into the future, India has to build rapidly on this foundation to enable women fulfil their economic potential faster and better.

Gender parity at the workplace is complex, and often, a challenge. However, companies cannot afford to slow down in finding effective ways to integrate women equitably into the corporate world.


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