Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously coined the term “missing women" to refer to the victims of gender bias. Across the developing world, preference for sons leads to lower survival rates for girls. The World Bank puts the number of missing women every year at four million.

The phenomenon of “missing women" is the starkest manifestation of gender inequality. But for each missing woman, there are many more who fail to get an education or a job that they would have obtained had they been men. The phenomenon of missing women workers seems to be finally getting the attention it deserves.

A June special issue of Finance and Development, a journal published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), highlights the gaping inequality between men and women at the workplace, and the costs of such disparity. Globally, women account for half of the working age population but represent only one-third of the labour force. Women who do have a job typically earn less, and are much less likely to rise to leadership positions, than men.

The twin phenomena of missing women and missing women workers are intricately tied to each other. Gender stereotypes encourage a culture of undervaluing women, limiting the educational opportunities women receive and in extreme cases, affecting their survival chances.

The problem is global in scale but is more pronounced in the developing world, especially so in South Asian economies such as India. With barely a quarter of its working age women in the workforce, India ranks 11th from the bottom in female workforce participation rates. Rising educational attainments may have led many women to withdraw from the workforce in recent years but low female workforce participation has been a structural problem for long. Given that a majority of urban educated women are out of the workforce, the sheer waste of talent is without parallel.

The huge missing workforce in India reflects and reinforces the low social status of women in the country. The low status of women imposes prohibitive social and economic costs: a below-average sex ratio, high maternal mortality, and widespread anaemia and undernutrition are some of the adverse effects. Nearly half of India’s malnutrition burden, for instance, is directly attributable to under-nourished mothers who give birth to low birth weight babies. And malnutrition alone eats away 2-3% of our gross domestic product (GDP) each year, according to World Bank estimates, by lowering productivity. The extraordinarily low social status of women also allows impunity for sexual offences.

Inequality between the sexes starts at home, and much of it has to do with our conception of work. Women may slog long hours to take care of their families, but such work often fails to gain recognition both within the family and in national statistics. At the workplace, Indian women continue to be under-represented despite years of rapid growth and improvements in female literacy rates. India seems to be caught in a vicious cycle where women hesitate to join the workforce because of existing social mores, and the lack of women workers tends to reinforce those mores.

Gender inequality is a tough challenge for India, and is unlikely to be solved merely by legislation. Nonetheless, a mix of gender-friendly and gender-neutral policies can help accelerate social change. One of the articles published in the Finance and Development journal illustrates how reservations for women in local bodies in West Bengal changed local perception about women leaders and helped drive up parents’ aspirations for their daughters. Gender-neutral policies such as public provisioning of potable water can help women save time on water-related chores in rural areas and in urban slums, and allow them greater freedom to take part in the workplace. Similarly, addressing urban safety and infrastructure issues can implicitly incentivize a greater number of women to join the workforce.

Economic independence or political empowerment: what should be given priority to changes the status of women in developing societies? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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