Last year, Nisaba Adi Godrej, daughter of industrialist Adi Godrej, was appointed as executive chairperson of Godrej Consumer Products Ltd; she was 39. The Harvard-educated scion of the Godrej group has played a major role in the meteoric growth in market capitalisation of the company ever since she was inducted into the company in 2000. Dhivya Suryadevara, also Harvard-educated, chief financial officer designate of General Motors (GM), is 39 years, too. Her growth at GM has been stupendous.

These women being educated at Harvard and given key roles at their organisations at the age of 39 are just coincidences. Nisa is from a business family, while Dhivya joined GM as a professional. Both have carved a niche for themselves in the corporate world. On the one hand, we have such role models and on the other, participation of women in the workforce in India is on the decline.  According to data from the World Bank, the female workforce participation (as a percentage of total workforce in the country) was approximately 28% for India in the nineties. It declined to 24.5% in 2017, while the global average has been around 39% throughout.

Various studies have pointed out that increased participation of women in the workforce will have a significant positive impact on the GDP of nations. Yet the decline, in India, is not really puzzling. At the heart of the matter is the deep-rooted patriarchal society that has defined the central role of women as homemaker.

What is keeping women away?

Literacy rate: Women accounted for a large part of the workforce in agriculture. Over the last few decades, owing to uncertainties associated with agriculture and better opportunities in manufacturing and services sectors, many families have moved away from farming. However, the women in these families continued to work on farms, as they were not educated enough to find other work. According to data from the last census, in 2011, the literacy rate for women in rural areas was only 59% as against 79% for men; in urban areas it was 80% when compared with 90% for men.

Socio-cultural causes: Despite a history of women contributing on farms in the agrarian Indian society, as the country gradually started to industrialise and urbanise, societal expectations were that a woman’s primary duty involves caregiving and child-rearing. It was an unspoken rule that she must obtain the approval of her family if she wished to work. It was thought shameful if one’s wife or daughter goes out to earn money instead of staying at home.

Unpaid work: Hiring processes have not been immune to the patriarchal manner of thinking. It is assumed that women have to keep up their primary duties, and therefore are a bad investment. The first part of this assumption is true in most cases making it very difficult for the women to juggle roles. McKinsey Global Institute estimated that when compared to men, women perform 9.8 times more unpaid work in India (globally it is three times) and if they were to be compensated, it could add an additional $0.3 trillion to India’s economic output.

Lack of infrastructure and sensitive policies: When a woman secures a job, lack of safe transport facilities, and dearth of crèches at workplaces hinder their progress and mobility. Further, corporate policies are largely designed to rule out ambiguity. In the process they become inflexible. Yet, to attract more women to the workforce, flexible timings and focus on achieving targets would be needed rather than stipulations such as physical presence from 9 to 5.

Pay gap: Gender pay gap is the difference in the average hourly remuneration earned by men and women. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 report on the Global Gender Gap, it will take about 217 years for the disparities in employment opportunities and wages, to disappear.  According to the latest Monster Salary Index, the gender pay gap in India across all sectors averaged at 20%. Manufacturing industry has the highest pay gap at 34.9% closely followed by the IT industry at 34%. Financial services and communications sector has the lowest pay gap at 17.70%. Pay gaps are demotivating and fills one with a feeling of being less worthy.

Let the tail become fatter

Considering the massive opportunities in terms of GDP it only seems right to take steps toward the achievement of equality in the workforce. The banking sector has shown promise in this regard. The sector realised the need for gender neutral policies early on. As a result, we have seen many women who have risen up the ranks to reach the highest echelons of an organisation, such as Arundhati Bhattacharya, former Chairman of the State Bank of India, and Kalpana Morparia, CEO of JP Morgan India.

Similarly, many family businesses have been encouraging women from the next generation to play active roles in the business. The involvement of women in boardrooms and in senior leadership positions has increased the focus on issues faced by women in organisations. Many of the next generation women leading family businesses are making their firms sensitive to the needs of women employees.

Dhivya and Nisa seem like outliers. It can be argued that they were fortunate. But the tail is becoming fatter. The mean is shifting to the right. According to McKinsey Global Institute, even if India does not achieve its full potential, under best-in-region-scenario, a further $0.7 trillion could be added to the GDP by 2025.

Non-participation versus inequality

Amartya Sen, Nobel prize winner for Economics, in his book Inequality reexamined advocated the capability approach to measure equality. He showed that equality can be measured in much wider terms such as empowerment, quality of life, choice of living the way they want, and so on, not just in terms of monetary or economic output (as the debate on gender parity is being made out to be).

“The pervasive diversity of human beings intensifies the need to address the diversity of focus in the assessment of equality,” Sen writes in his book. For example, Sindhu Mohan, a post-graduate from a premier management institute in India, chose to retire to a life with kids, friends, travel, books, sports and fun after a few years of slogging it out as a banker. There is no inequality in play in her case. It is a choice. Hence, not all non-participation in the workforce can be termed as inequality.

What is important is that if a woman wishes to work, and is as capable as a male counterpart, she receive equality in all aspects. In conclusion, capability and not gender should be the deciding criterion for a job. Finally, the mindset of men needs to change if true gender parity, in terms of capabilities, choices and opportunities is to be achieved. The men need to be ready themselves for an equal society as the women march forward despite the challenges.

(Views expressed are personal. )

Nupur Pavan Bang (L) is associate director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business, and Sai Nitya Bodavala (R) is a student of anthropology.

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