While the number of women enrolling in higher education has been increasing steadily, their participation in India's organised workforce has declined at an alarming rate. Between 2005-2012, 19.6 million women dropped off the workforce. Our female labour force participation has dropped from 35% in 2005 to 24% in 2018 one of the lowest in the world. Today, it is widely recognised that closing the gender gap would unleash countless benefits – higher economic growth, improved corporate performance, more innovation and talent, and - of course - a more equal world. One estimate suggests that greater female participation in the economy could lead to a 6.8 % gain in India’s GDP. With ample evidence in favour of more women in the workforce, why is this still a pipedream?
Over the years, working with women committed to careers, I have discovered that closing the gender gap is not a one way street. Policymakers, organisations, families, and women themselves, have to collectively create the ecosystem for women to thrive in the workforce.
Let’s start with the government. The Indian government, broadly, treats women as victims who they have to rescue and solve for. From destitution to abuse, it’s a long list of problems that women suffer from. The National Commission for Women set up by the Government has the following mission ‘to strive towards enabling women to achieve equality and equal participation in all spheres of life by securing her due rights and entitlements through suitable policy formulation, legislative measures, effective enforcement of laws, implementation of schemes/policies and devising strategies for solution of specific problems/situations arising out of discrimination and atrocities against women.’ And there is no doubt that this must remain a priority.
However, it is equally true that women are assets – social, political and economic. The large number of urban, educated women could contribute impactfully to growth on all these fronts - with thoughtful policy shifts and early support for women in the workforce. Over time, this should pave the way for a policy environment that is conducive to working families – like in the Nordic countries that are the benchmark for gender balance. It would serve gender balance positively, if India’s policy-makers took some learnings from Norway, Sweden, or even Iceland. Nordic countries lead the world at closing the gender gap and, in recent years, have taken root at the top of the global rankings. Almost three in four working-age women in Nordic countries are part of the paid labour force, and policy-makers explicitly support gender equality at work, at home and in public. A few examples - Iceland has held the position of the world’s most gender equal society and ranks #1 for ‘wage equality for similar work’ in the world today. Norway has closed 83% of its overall gender gap. Gender quotas legislate for a 40% female presence in the country’s parliament and on business boards, resulting in a strong female presence – Norway’s prime minister, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs are all female, while women make up 41% of the C-suite. Sweden boats of the most generous parental leave policies in the world, with parents entitled to share ~16 months - paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. Sweden has seen an increase in female legislators and bolstered numbers of senior officials and managers. In 2016, the number of Swedish women equalled males in ministerial positions for the first time and it ranks No 1 in the index for this.
If we shifted our attention next to corporations, there is great intention, with far less acceptable outcomes. Over the last two decades, many companies of a reasonable size or stature have an appointed diversity and inclusion sponsor. An even larger number have ‘women-friendly’ policies in place. However, we are still grappling with increasing numbers of women dropping out of the workforce. Why are corporate policies not translating into desired outcomes? There are many possible explanations – but the ones we hear most often are around unconscious biases, assumptions that are made about women’s aspirations and preferences, policies that perpetuate ‘patriarchal’ norms and therefore women hesitate to use them. For example, while there are policies around maternity, sabbaticals, and flexi-work hours, they invariably work against women during performance appraisals. Companies need to focus on gender neutral performance evaluation if some of these ‘friendly’ policies are to be impactful. Gender intelligence is critical especially because workplaces are still male-dominated and therefore prone to biases despite lip service to the contrary.
It is time for brutal honesty within corporations to assess their policies – ask women employees why these policies don’t work and what they can do to support a genuine change. There isn’t a silver bullet to fix this complex and deep-rooted problem – but getting a third party to assess whether women believe their organisation is fair and gender-balanced could be a start, instead of organisations patting themselves on the back for having a policy in place. Setting measurable targets for women as a percentage of the workforce at every level – from junior all the way upto the board should become a hygiene factor and not be seen as a lofty ambition. There are organisations like Unilever and Diageo that are leading the way and others could commit to following suit.
Finally, we must look at society, families and women themselves. What is it in our social fabric that builds barriers to closing the gender gap? Over the years, girls are brought up to believe that they have the ‘choice’ to work or not, unlike boys who ‘must’ work and be providers. And therefore the instinct to quit finds an outlet with limited resistance. Gender biases begin at home – what girls can and cannot do, what is expected of them in terms of behaviour, what brings validation and approval – these are a part of centuries-old conditioning. And unless, we work consciously to change these beliefs, policy and organisational measures will have, at best, a sub-optimal impact.
There is a volume of research available on what is now known as the ‘double-bind’ – women face a peculiar challenge where they are required to develop conventionally masculine qualities of aggression and ambition to succeed at the work place, but these qualities are looked down upon in the societal/familial space. Women then have to choose between being ‘competent’ or ‘liked’. It is no wonder that women professionals, on average, are found wanting on negotiation, assertiveness, visibility, executive presence and ‘self-projection’ even as they rise up the corporate ladder. And Unlike their male counterparts, women end up spending large parts of their days repeatedly proving their leadership calibre, and working twice as hard to prove themselves.
The good news is that we are at a point in history that has never been better poised for change. While the present pandemic has turned the world upside down, several women all across the world have emerged as truly admirable leaders. Take for instance, the Kerala health minister, KK Shailaja, whose meticulously planned preventive and precautionary measures saved the state from the virus and its havoc, causing only four fatalities in a state of 35 million, or the brilliant Jacinda Ardern, whose people-focused and empathy-driven leadership style – has proven to be the most efficient amongst the top political leadership in the world. In a way, it has ushered in the importance of the ‘feminine’.
Add to this, the number of millennial women who are entering the workforce with a redefined set of expectations from their employers, healthy ambition, and a new set of often ‘un-gendered’ priorities. While the previous generation of women professionals demanded maternity leave, childcare facilities and safe transportation, the millennial generation is going after changing the rigid mindsets at their workplaces and promoting frameworks that are ‘working-families’ friendly. As organisations weave these expectations into their affirmative policies, we will see the gender inequality gap beginning to narrow.
Much like for a good recipe, we have all the ingredients at hand. It is now up to each of us as leaders - whether in politics, government, a company or our homes - to be a good chef, and combine these ingredients to cook up a perfectly balanced future!
Anuradha Das Mathur, Founder and Dean
Anuradha Das Mathur is Founding Dean of Vedica Scholars Programme for Women. She is Founder and Director of 9.9 Media, one of India’s fastest growing niche media companies, which believes in raising the bar for higher education through publications like EDU that helps decision makers at higher education institutions govern their institutions smartly. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, she ran Businessworld, one of India’s most widely read business magazines and worked for The Economist Group.