India Needs More Women in the Workforce

Corporate mentorship programmes and earn-and-learn vocational schemes can encourage more Indian women to enter the workforce.

Since last December, Indians of all stripes have begun a national conversation on issues relating to women - in the workforce, as victims of violence, in education and perhaps most importantly, as agents of change in rapidly modernising Indian cities. There are many dimensions to women taking on leadership roles at home, at school, in the workplace, and as participants in the rapidly expanding economy. But while Indian society has done well in encouraging women into the political sphere, it still finds ways to ensure that they do not participate in the economic sphere - a sad fact that will continue to weigh down its economic growth prospects.

This idea was recently articulated in an annual report message from one of India's most important business leaders. Cyrus Mistry, the new chairman of the Tata group, did what few (if any) other Indian businessmen have done - he laid out in stark terms the cost of leaving women out of the workforce, noting that "When women are insufficiently represented in the workplace, we lose out on 50 per cent of the talent pool. In an environment where human capital makes all the difference between success and failure, this is a massive loss which countries and corporates can ill-afford."

According to the World Bank, two out of every three women in India are not employed. At this crucial time in its growth trajectory, can India afford this? The loss in GDP that the country incurs as a side-effect of low female workforce participation is a major drag on overall economic performance. The UN and International Labor Organisation have noted that India's growth rate could jump by 4. 2 per cent if women were given more opportunities. That would push India's current growth rate closer to 10 per cent, making it, once again, one of the world's fastest accelerating economies.

How can one begin to address these challenging facts? And what might be done to encourage women of all educational levels into the workforce in a way that benefits them socially and economically?

For one, more corporate leaders could publicly state that women are needed and valued in the workforce. But beyond acknowledging it, enforcing it with the support of managers at all levels is key. Lip service with inadequate implementation will not help.

Retaining young women in the workforce is a tough endeavor in India. Women around the world drop out of the workforce for wide-ranging reasons, and no country has a perfect balance of gender equality yet. But Indian women drop out of professional life earlier than even their regional counterparts. Forty-eight percent of females drop out of the workforce before they reach mid-career, much higher than the regional average. The largest percentage of Indian women leaving the workforce occurs between the junior and middle level, as opposed to between the middle and senior levels. Family pressure and cultural norms are most often cited as reasons for leaving in the early stages, and women often find it easier to remain at junior levels or to leave the workforce altogether.

India's CEOs and corporate leaders can encourage more women to join their companies, and offer the same benefits they receive in many other nations - flexible work schedules, the ability to telecommute, mentoring programmes and a certain amount of time off for family emergencies. Some already offer it, but not nearly enough.

For those females who do not have formal education through class 12 or college, vocational training and earn-and-learn schemes are key. Beyond the traditional female-friendly occupations, women must be brought out of the "informal workforce" and trained for the growing manufacturing sector, in healthcare, finance, services, teaching and other industries in desperate need of more workers. Local industry, in cooperation with state and local governments, can create and design vocational training schools in rural areas to bolster the talent that still, in 2013, remains untapped. As the chief ministers of many states look to increase their economic power, creating jobs through vocational centres remains a game-changing opportunity that is yet to be harnessed.

As policymakers demand a shift in emphasis from the agricultural sector to manufacturing and services, and as workers train to fill these positions around the country, vocational schools should take on 50 per cent women students to ensure that the workforce resembles a similar ratio.

Once women enter the workforce, enforcing gender-friendly workplace policies can help to retain and increase the level of talent they bring. Not surprisingly, the enabling factors necessary to encourage young women into the workforce are lacking. A mix of health care, education, and work-life policies are all needed.

Health care is concentrated in urban centres and does not yet reach hundreds of millions in rural areas. Nor does it reach the youngest citizens. Child malnourishment is rampant: five per cent of children die within their first year, and just over 20 per cent of the population is chronically malnourished. If cognitive development is stunted from such an early age, learning and productivity is lost, with repercussions for society at large. These basic inputs into the welfare of women and children are required to develop and maintain talent for the workforce.

Education is also lacking, though strides are being made to expand and strengthen the system. World Bank data show that while 75 per cent of men over the age of 15 can read and write, only 51 per cent of women can, the result of boys being given priority in education. There is a general under-representation of girls in primary schools, and their enrollment drops off quickly at higher levels. While India passed a landmark Right to Education Act, its implementation is spotty and students are widely known to complain that teachers are absent from classrooms on a regular basis.

Development data repeatedly reinforces the point that investing in women's education results in poverty alleviation, increased development, and healthier, better-educated children. Investing in women is investing in communities and nations. In order for India to reach its Millennium Development Goals, increase the size of its productive workforce and economic development prospects, and alleviate poverty and boost its citizens' general welfare, training and supporting women in the workforce is one of the best possible options. 

(This Commentary originally appeared in The Times of India)

Persis Khambatta is a Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are her own.

Persis Khambatta