Be it a place in the office, the parliament, or the metro, reservation for women is a hot debate topic in India. At this year’s Most Powerful Women summit in Mumbai, we took the question of reservation for women in the workforce to a panel of top corporate leaders.

The participation of women in the labour force in the country, at least in the formal sector, is one of the lowest in the world. And increasing it, says the World Bank, can boost the country’s GDP growth substantially.

“If women participated in the economy at par with men, India could increase the GDP by upto 60% or 2.9 trillion dollars by 2025,” R. M. Vishakha, managing director and chief executive of IndiaFirst Life Insurance, said at the MPW summit on Monday,

Referring to a study, Vishakha said there is a strong correlation between the presence of women in a company’s top management and better financial results. The return on equity for companies with more women in the executive committees is 47% higher than those with none, as per the study.

While the immense financial and social impact of more working women is undeniable, can reservation really boost women’s participation in the workforce, and more importantly help the larger cause of gender equality?

“Hire us because you want to, because we are good and because you are willing to train us and invest in us; not because you have to,” says Zia Mody, co-founder, AZB & Partners. A lawyer of more than three decades, Mody said the real challenge in India is women dropping out of the workforce mid-career. “What is India going to do to keep women from leaving their jobs?” she says. Statistics show that 48% of Indian women who join the workforce drop out.

While a focus on educating girls might push more women to join the formal workforce, lack of support from families, motherhood, sexual harassment at the workplace, and the patriarchal notion of “women don’t work after marriage”, are all reasons forcing them to quit midway. Speaking at the MPW summit on Monday, Mody emphasised on the need to educate and skill women in order to bring about real and long-term change.

In a country which still has caste-based reservations, the idea has caused some serious disgruntlement among various segments of the society. There have been demands in recent years to revise the reservation policy. Although, reservations have, to an extent, helped bring to par sections of the society that were deprived of jobs or even an education. But, can it do the same for women?

“Reservation will put women who have been historically disadvantaged on a level playing field,” says Anupriya Acharya, CEO, Publicis Media India.

The numbers on female participation in the workforce are startling. Sample this – there are 655 million fewer women than men in the workforce. Even as women make up 50% of the world’s higher education graduates, 25% occupy management positions in the industry.

“There is no problem in supply. There are enough women who are qualified and capable and competent. The issue is demand. The issue is that we don’t create enough opportunities for them. And why are the opportunities not created. Two main reasons being – unconscious bias and a lack of opportunity,” says Vishakha.

She also shared some telling statistics. She says that in the banking, financial services and insurance (BFSI) sector, one of the sectors with highest growth and maximum hiring, there are 78.8% men. In rural India, 67% of girl graduates don’t work, and in towns and cities, 68.3% women don’t have paid jobs.

Chetna Gala Sinha, who runs the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank – a cooperative bank for women, run by women, says that there is a need to get women with new ideas in the formal sector. “It is only when women in self-help groups started saving did India’s financial inclusion movement succeed,” said Sinha.

Zarin Daruwala, chief executive of Standard Chartered India argues that solutions like reservation are at best “an insufficient crutch”, which may lead to cases of reverse discrimination and put working women at a further disadvantage.

“Reservations actually promote inequality and ghettoise communities,” says Daruwala.

Not just Daruwala, Ameera Shah, promoter and managing director, Metropolis Healthcare agrees that women reservation will have consequences when it comes to workplace dynamics. Unless the team comprises of people who are respected and chosen based on their abilities, it could be detrimental to the team’s performance.

“There will be huge resentment from the men in the team and that can kill the teamwork,” says Shah, adding, “Do we want real empowerment or tokenism? Real empowerment is about choice.”

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