B R Ambedkar had said, ‘I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress its women have achieved.’ This is a truth universally, and finally, acknowledged today – that increased participation of women in the workforce will lead to higher economic growth for organisations, and nations at large. In the pre-COVID19 time, the World Bank estimated that India could boost its growth by 1.5 percentage points if around 50% of women could join the work force, compared to the current 27%. Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant has said that even if this percentage is taken up to the global average of 48%, we will add approximately 700 billion USD to India’s economy. At a time when the economy is in shock, and growth at its lowest in many years, women could be an important part of the solution we are looking for.
The big question is – why do we continue to rank 121st out of 131 countries, in terms of female workforce participation? What stops women from succeeding professionally in India? How can we do better by the women in our country?
Let’s start with the fact that women have never been considered ‘assets’ for our economy – unfortunately, they have been perceived as a ‘problem’ to be solved by policymakers. Indian women are, as a result, almost never co-opted into the growth story.
While they outperform their male peers when graduating from high school and college, they begin to ‘disappear’ soon after joining the workforce. The Government has spent inordinate amounts of resources in educating our girls in the hope that they will be empowered, however the gap between education and empowerment remains vast, in the absence of meaningful careers and financial independence.
“If the number of women who quit jobs in India between 2004-05 and 2011-12 (the last year for which census data is available), was a city, it would, at 19.6 million, be the third-most populated in the world, after Shanghai and Beijing” writes Namita Bhandare in IndiaSpend. How can we enable women to plug the gap between education and employment so that they not just join the workforce, but pursue meaningful careers, navigating personal and professional challenges?
In my view, we teach our girls to get jobs, but not how to keep them. Even as we solve for lasting systemic change, we must create safe spaces for women, where they learn crucial professional skills, get equipped with personal growth and leadership tools, and find the courage to develop their own styles – not those defined by men. MBA programmes in the country, and around the world, treat men and women students alike – they fail to recognise the difference between ‘equal’ and ‘same’. Men and women are ‘equal’, but not the ‘same’. Ignoring this reality, leaves women disadvantaged in the world of work that is shaped and dominated by men. Given history, women still need an environment that encourages them to focus on their strengths, and build on their authentic leadership skills – away from conventional norms of masculine leadership.
In fact, it is hard to miss the advantages of female leadership, especially today when women leaders around the world seem to be showing the way on how to respond to the current global pandemic. Norwegian PM Erna Solberg held a dedicated press conference for the children of the country to discuss their fears; New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern demonstrated immense clarity and decisiveness, and took early measures to effectively contain the virus in the country. Add to all this, a deep sense of empathy – a trait that is being recognised as crucial to leading successfully in the future. Avivah-Wittenberg Cox articulates it best when she asks, “How many other simple, humane innovations would more female leadership unleash?”
Unlike women of my generation, millennial women are fortunate to grow up in the wake of strong female role models around the world, and can be equipped to take on patriarchy – a system that is as disadvantageous to men as it is to women. Today, even high-performing senior women in global corporations need focused coaching on how to be more confident and assertive, be visible and better networked, learn how to negotiate and deal with the challenges of work-life balance – and the overwhelming popularity of women’s-only executive education programmes in premier institutes around the world offers proof. This trend flies in the face of management education that offers exactly the same inputs to men and women – since the world waiting for women is so different from the one that men venture into. My favourite analogy is that of a golf academy with only right-handed golf clubs. If the academy treated all its students identically (seems fair), what is the chance that its left-handed players would ever perform to potential? You get the point. It is, therefore, no surprise that women fall behind in careers and, even worse, drop out at the first trace of difficult trade-offs.
There are even more reasons to create women-only programmes. According to Shefaly Yogendra (Visiting Faculty, Vedica Scholars Programme for Women), ‘Teachers call upon male students more than they do female students which is a form of suppressing women’s voices. It is also common to see women not speaking up in mixed gender groups for fear of ridicule (never mind men holding forth with confidence when they should hold back), or women going unheard until a man presents their points, with or without credit to the women, or women being “mansplained” at.”
Additionally, women-only programmes can incorporate several other focus areas that matter more to them than men. For example, the importance of financial independence, managing money and investments, resilience and courage as personal attributes to be able to make choices in their own interest, understand the implications of gender, embrace the importance of sisterhood, get familiar with feminist history and, finally, develop the vocabulary to advocate for what impacts their lives and careers.
Let’s hope India can look up to Scandinavian countries and neighbours closer home like Japan who have effectively practised ‘womenomics’ over the last decade – an idea that is rooted in the belief that advancement of women and economic development are closely linked. Educational institutes as well as workplaces need to encourage women to succeed to their fullest potential and at the same time, promote a robust ecosystem to allow women professionals to thrive. New patterns will emerge only as we smash old gender stereotypes, and look towards a new form of leadership that is not clouded by past, myopic narratives. And what better time than now–in the face of this unprecedented global pandemic–to take a cue from the examples around us, recognise the futility of the past, and embrace the inevitability of the ‘new’?