How to Address Low Workforce Participation of Women in India

Equal workforce participation of women would add US$ 12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. Yet, only one in five women in India participate in the workforce and we are doing worse than our neighbors like Bangladesh and Bhutan. Research has shown that diversity in the workforce and in the boardroom is good for corporate performance. So, why don’t we see more corporates adopting diversity rather than this being like a check box item for them? At the recently concluded Jobs Conference, a panel of leading Gender Equity and Diversity champions debated on these issue.

Sonal Jaitley, Gender Team Leader at the Small Industries Development Bank of India, said that not only the workforce participation of women was abysmal in India, what is even more appalling is that it has been falling.

“No Child is born unemployable”.

Nidhi Bansal, Senior Director with CARE India said that “No child is born unemployable. Multiple socio-economic factors result in women accumulating numerous deficits through her life. We have a skewed sex ratio at birth and abhorrent practices like female foeticide which gives a message that a girl child is less valued. Less access to food and nutrition causes a growth deficit resulting in lower physical and cognitive development. In adolescence, they face mobility restrictions and have to share the burden of household responsibilities. They are told not to be too aspirational about career, and to compromise and adjust as per the family’s preference. This leads to aspiration deficit. The workplace itself is not very welcoming for girls. Safety at the workplace is an important concern. Everyday discrimination coupled with her primary care giver responsibility pushes women out of the workplace.

“Women accumulate growth, skill and aspiration deficit as they grow.”

There are no incentives for small and medium businesses to hire women. They consider natural functions like women’ reproductive needs as a burden. Therefore, employers look at hiring women as an added cost. Instead of maternity leave, we need to institute parental leave, so that childcare is seen as a joint responsibility of men and women. The moment we change to parental leave, for the employer, it won’t matter whether to hire a man or a woman, and there would be less discrimination.

Alexis Muthiah, Program Officer at FWWB, talks about the time poverty faced by women. Her time being devoted to household chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, child and elderly care, she is not left with enough time to run her business. Combined with skill deficit, this forces women to take up low paid jobs. In the farming communities, majority of labor on the farm is done by women. But it is seen as an extension of her domestic responsibility, and not valued.

Helle Lund from Humana People to People says that credit for small businesses continues to be a challenge. Even after being with a microfinance institution for ten cycles and having an impeccable repayment track record, she still is not considered worthy of taking a larger business loan. Mindset and culture shift needs to happen in the Banks and NBFCs.

Iftin Fatah, from Development Finance Corporation (Earlier OPIC) talked about DFC’s gender lens investing that prioritizes women-led, women owned or women supported enterprises. She shared example of Water health India which runs a program of water pumps run by women, which has created employment for 1300 women.

“Labor force participation of women is an indicator of how sustainable and equitable a country’s growth is.”

Labor force participation of women is an indicator of how sustainable and equitable a country’s growth is. Increasing female labor force participation will increase India’s overall growth trajectory. However, It is not just an economic issue, it is also a human rights issue. Social change has to be driven from household and from institutions like school to instill the values of equality and justice from the beginning. Corporate culture has to be transformed at all levels.

The gap in the earnings of men and women in regular, salaried jobs, without accounting for differences in hours worked has been significant through the years. While policy changes are needed to fix this, these have to go hand in hand with changes in social structure, business and market place. We also need to have more female role models and engage men in this transformation journey. Top recommendations from the panel: i) Accessible, affordable and flexible services for women, ii) Build skills and capability of women iii) Share the burden of household chores and caregiver responsibility iv) Access to credit.

(This blog is based on a panel discussion at The Jobs Conference, 2019, and has been compiled by Prabhat Labh and Ronisha Bhattacharyya).

Grameen Foundation India

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