One common theme underlines the announcement of results to any competitive examination in India: female students outshining their male peers. Be it the class X or class XII exams conducted by state education boards, ICSE or CBSE, or entrance assessments like the NEET or CAT, media headlines like “Girls outperform boys…” are de rigeur. Yet, their academic excellence isn’t translating into equitable representation in the country’s workforce.
Latest studies peg women’s participation in India’s workplaces at just north of 20%—lower than our South Asian neighbours and many African nations. This means that a third of our women in the working age group aren’t active participants in our economy. The average Indian woman spends nearly six hours per day doing unpaid labour, according to studies. That apart, barriers exist between women and their shot at a steady career and paycheck. Indian society rather unfairly expects women across social strata and education/skillsets to be “good” housewives—sire kids and take care of cooking and other domestic chores. They largely drop out of the workforce either when they get married; or when they enter pregnancy and become mothers. Their careers either stagnate or end.
Yet, the fact remains that more women in the workforce means better earnings and quality of lives, not to mention a larger contribution to the economy. These in itself should be reasons for us to recognise the immense potential in bringing women to the workforce. Creating women leaders for future is another big ask and this requires fast tracking talented women with strong processes and policies.
What we really need to focus on right now is how India Inc. can increase its gender diversity by getting around such constraints, by tweaking its policies. Being open to hiring higher percentage of women in unconventional roles in manufacturing, helping them manage tough cycles in family life by giving additional facilities like crèche/ day boarding options, flexi-working hours, or allowing them to choose when they want to start and finish their workday. By giving them this flexibility, India Inc. can help create women-friendly workplaces across sectors, helping build a pool of skilled workforce with a wide-ranging specialization.
This isn’t without precedent. For nearly two years during pandemic, India Inc. has eschewed larger offices in place of smaller-sized workplaces or co-working spaces, overcoming niggles like patchy internet or power supply woes. Even then, being the multi-taskers that they are, women didn’t have to confront the work-home binary and could juggle between office meetings on Zoom and cooking for the day or taking care of their children.
The women of today are well read and are upfront about their choices—doubtless a big upgrade from a few generations ago. Leave alone $5 trillion, if India is to realize its dream of becoming the world’s most powerful economy in 3-4 decades from now, it cannot do so by pulling down one half of itself. Women’s representation and equality—that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution—are no longer token gestures or symbolisms that need to be paid lip service once a year. India needs to put its women at all levels of the workplace to combat gender inequality. The diverse perspectives that they bring is an asset to any company.
The good news is, our lawmakers are cognizant of the situation and measures to set right are either being proposed or have been implemented. For instance, all publicly listed companies must mandatorily appoint at least one woman director on their board. India was also among the foremost nations to stipulate six-month maternity leave for employed women. Still, the fact remains that a lot more can be done.
None other than Indra Nooyi, the former president of Pepsico Inc., who was featured regularly among the world’s most powerful persons, once said in an interview: “I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all.”
Perhaps it’s time India Inc. proved her wrong.