India needs a gender strategy

19 Oct 2023
India needs a gender strategy

Opinion: Poonam Gupta.

India must adopt a holistic gender strategy consisting of fiscal, administrative, and regulatory measures, combined with public messaging and mindset changes.

Globally, the average workforce participation is 50 per cent for women and 80 per cent for men. In India, the corresponding ratio is similar for men, but strikingly lower for women, at under 30 percent.

Claudia Goldin recently won the Economics Nobel Prize for explaining various facets of entrenched gender gaps in employment. Her research shows that more women enter the workforce when several conditions are met: There are appropriate jobs (for example, in the service sector); women are more educated; they can independently decide when to have children; societal stigma, discriminatory legislation, and other institutional barriers are removed; they have role models to emulate; and when the burden of raising the family lessens, e.g. once their children grow older. Importantly, economic growth in itself has not bridged gender gaps.

Dr Goldin’s research uses data from the US, but her findings are fully applicable to India and other contexts. In India, despite a shift towards an increasingly service-sector oriented economy and a marked reduction in gender gaps in education, the gender employment deficit remains as wide as ever. This implies that we need to target the institutional and societal causes creating the gender gap in employment, while simultaneously making it easier, safer, remunerative, and professionally rewarding for women to join the workforce and for their families and communities to support these decisions.

Given the enormity of the challenge and its persistence, a holistic gender strategy consisting of fiscal measures, administrative measures, regulatory measures, public messaging, and mindset changes is needed. The strategy could build around the measures proposed below.

First, Indian women are unable to join the formal workforce because their days are occupied from dawn to dusk with unpaid care work. Developing a care economy to cater to the young, the ailing, and the elderly can be transformational. This not only has the potential to generate a large number of direct employment across genders, but will also free up women to join the formal workforce.

Second, evidence from the East Asian economies shows that women need mobility to be independent, productive, and employment-ready. Women must be encouraged and incentivised to own and operate their own vehicles (be it a bicycle, a bike, a scooter, or a car). Tax breaks, easier access to credit, lower interest rates, as well as reduced fees for driving licences and insurance cover may be offered to encourage women to acquire their own vehicles.

Third, safety is one of the primary reasons for the low engagement of women in paid work in India. Our cities and workplaces must be made safer. This would necessitate the presence of a critical mass of women in public spaces, and deployment of more women as security staff, in the police force, and as transport operators (in buses, autos, taxis, metros, or trains).

At present, only 10 per cent of the Indian police force consists of women. Efforts could be made to increase this number initially to 30 per cent, with the eventual aim of achieving parity with men. A politically and socially acceptable way of achieving this could be to expand the current size of the police force by incorporating new positions only for women.

In addition, working women need affordable and safe housing in urban and semi-urban areas. Gender-based discrimination against single women in renting homes must end. A combination of public awareness marketing campaigns and better enforcement of existing regulation can facilitate the process of developing safe and conducive accommodations for working women.

Fourth, we need to economically incentivize women’s participation in the workforce. Tax breaks for all working women — whether single, head of households, or in dual-income families — should help. This would also help garner family support.

Fifth, we must find ways to facilitate the entry or re-entry of older women, say in their 40s and 50s, into the workforce. Dr Goldin’s work makes it clear that women rejoin the workforce after the bulk of their childcare responsibilities are over. Such women can directly contribute to all kinds of service-oriented activities, such as health, wellness, education, designing, research, and hospitality; as well as be called upon to train the next generation of skilled workers.

Sixth, we must inculcate gender-neutral behavior among boys and girls from a young age, including through sports, electives, and after-school extracurricular activities. Boys may be encouraged, or even required, to learn parenting, cooking, and housekeeping activities, while girls may similarly be trained in technical education, financial literacy, driving, and self-defence.

Seventh, we need to bridge the leadership gaps in all spheres of public life. Parity in leadership roles can counter embedded norms in ways that no other policy measure can. An uncomfortably large number of glass ceilings remain intact even after 75 years of Independence. Sample this: Not a single one of the 25 Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governors so far has been a woman. Among the 64 deputy governors of the RBI, only three have been women. None of India’s 18 Chief Economic Advisors to date has been a woman. There has never been a woman Vice Chairperson of NITI Aayog (or of that of its precursor, the Planning Commission); a woman member of NITI Aayog; a woman Chief Justice of India; a woman head of the Finance Commission; or a full-time woman Chief Election Commissioner. This list could go on.

Lack of women’s leadership is not a pipeline issue. It is a mindset issue. Pipelines can be built with committed intent.

Finally, we should re-design and re-designate the Ministry of Women and Child Development as the Ministry of Mother and Child Development; and set up a separate Ministry of Gender Parity with the predominant aim of ushering in “Women-led Development”.

The above measures, once combined with support from top political leadership and appropriate public messaging, would weaken the prevalent societal and economic norms that inhibit women’s participation in the workforce.

Gender parity is both an economic and a human rights issue. For India, it would be the key to becoming an advanced economy by 2047.

The writer is director general at NCAER.

Published in: Business Standard, 19 Oct 2023