Where have all the women gone?

For most part of my life, I have been fortunate in not being reminded of my gender. I say most part, because there are moments, when I am reminded of the fact that I am a woman, and possibly in a minority in the choices I make, in the lifestyle I lead, in my role at work. I was recently at a meeting in a large organisation and was struck by the fact that I was the only woman in the room. Other than the secretary, who had called me the previous day to confirm the meeting under the mistaken assumption that I might be the executive assistant, because I was the only woman in the list.

When I went to B-school, we had a healthy gender ratio of 1:1. In fact, this was often commented upon enviously by fellow batchmates from other B-schools. A decade down the line, the curve has skewed rather drastically. This is a nation where recent census data shows that 160 million women, 88% of whom are between 15 and 59 years of age, are performing household duties, rather than being gainfully employed.

Claudia Goldin’s work at Harvard University on women in the workforce explains some of this phenomenon. Dr. Goldin, in her paper, suggested that economic development and gender equality share a synchronous relationship. “Gender equality spurs economic development, particularly where children are concerned, while economic development fosters gender equality“, she says. I can vouch for this through anecdotal evidence and my work in financial inclusion.

Microfinance in India has largely focussed on women clients because they display higher repayment rates. Women have also been seen as more credit worthy since they tend to invest the monies borrowed in income generating activities leading to the improvement of the families’ well-being. The oblique impact on gender equality is obvious while visiting groups of women borrowers in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a state that continues to be notorious for its patriarchal culture and poor treatment of women. In meeting after meeting that I attended, the women interacted with us, chided the male field officer for being late and displayed their passbooks proudly for having repaid on time and running a business successfully. They spoke of their dreams of sending their daughters to school, and revelled their newly found financial independence. In the south of India, I visited branches, where the number of women employees outnumbered the men. I also realised when I spoke to the women that they were better qualified than the men, and far more ambitious. One of them spoke about how she had sent both her children, a boy and a girl, to an English medium school, facilitated a loan for her husband’s cropping season and bought a two wheeler for herself.

Having interacted with these women, I wonder at the high attrition seen at slightly higher income levels. The Global Gender Gap Report 2013 published by the World Economic Forum shows that less than 50% of the women who graduate from business school continue in the workforce in India. From a return on investment point of view, this is a terrible scenario for the nation. It is also terrible for the women from a personal growth standpoint. There is yet another data point that tells a different story: the increasing participation of women at senior management levels, showing that the proportion has increased from 14% to 19% in a year. While this might still be low, the increasing trend does tell a different story.

Dr. Goldin explains this phenomenon by her U-shaped curve explanation.  At lower income levels, women are in the workforce, but often engaged by the family or household businesses. Their work is implicitly bought by the family and then the women retreat into their homes, although their hours of work remain the same i.e. from dawn to dusk. As education levels improve, and the value of their work in the market increases, they come back into the paid workforce. Some of these women might work as entrepreneurs within the confines of their home, allowing them to straddle both worlds. Despite rising income levels, there is a huge drop out at middle management levels, when women prioritise personal commitments and often find it hard to balance family, work and personal time. At senior management levels, again, the number of women might be showing an increasing trend due to other incentives brought about by higher incomes such as access to better child care, support systems to balance home and work, and others.

While the Women’s Reservation Bill has been doing the rounds since 1996, I wonder if a simplistic solution such as Reservation could solve this problem. A recent working paper released by the Brooking’s Institute by Shamika Ravi and Rohan Sandhu shows that while the current government has 10.6% women Members of Parliament, this number is less than half of the global average, and a majority hail from politically connected families themselves. Therefore, the role of government cannot be to merely increase participation of women in the workforce by creating positions, but to enable a larger number of women to aspire and participate with ease. Steps that we can take include learning from the Nordic countries experience of creating a situation where wage disparities between genders are low, both genders take equal responsibility for household chores and work, and better childcare facilities. In addition, the identification of possible mentors for women who want to continue in the workforce to help chart out career paths, to hand hold them to senior management levels would smoothen the dip seen due to middle management attrition. There is possibly also a need to create opportunities for women to return back to work after taking a break for child birth, care of family or other reasons.







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