While the successful hosting of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2017 in Hyderabad, its first outing in South Asia, was a significant achievement for India, the theme of “Women First, Prosperity for All" also perhaps brought into focus a great anomaly in the Indian workforce—the under-representation of women.

US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, highlighted in her keynote address that increasing the participation of women in the labour force would significantly boost the Indian economy. “Just consider, if India closes the labour force gender gap by half, your economy could grow by over $150 billion in the next three years," she said.

She was talking about a problem India may be quite familiar with but is finding hard to tackle. In the “Global Gender Gap Report" (2017) released recently by the World Economic Forum (WEF), India has been ranked a low 108 out of 144 countries on the gender equality scale, slipping from 87 last year.

Earlier this year, a World Bank report had said that India has among the lowest female labour force participation rates (LFPRs) in the world. In particular, low female LFPR is a drag on gross domestic product (GDP) growth and an obstacle towards reaching a higher growth path.

China has 64% of its women working, one of the highest rates in the world. In the US, it is over 56%. In the subcontinent, Nepal and Bangladesh do much better than India; only Pakistan has a lower rate.

It is not for lack of intent. There is evidence that a vast number of educated women do want to get back to their careers but are held back by impediments, such as societal norms and structural problems in labour markers and employment policies.

Personal experiences recounted by many women suggest that employers are sometimes not ready, or not prepared, to take back women who have been on a career break and jobs often do not lend themselves to the elusive work-life balance. So they end up taking prolonged breaks.

However, such career breaks also put the brakes on the national economy. The lives and fortune of women affect everyone.

Policy or intent

The issue is not just about equality and opportunity any more. Many young women are highly educated and their qualifications are on par with those of their male counterparts. They then also work hard to build a career but as family life and home responsibilities take precedence, they end up dropping out of the workforce.Those who do decide to get back to work are often harrowed with questions about how, if at all, they would be able to manage home and work. Some of the assumptions about “returning women" are not just discriminatory but also disheartening.

Corporate India is struggling to maintain gender diversity in companies. It perhaps needs a stronger will and determined policy changes to bring women back to work. While it may be crucial for a working woman to take a break for some reason, be it family or children, she needs support and policy changes to enable her to come back to full-time or part-time work.

Many companies now have a diversity and inclusion (D&I) mandate which makes them look to hire more women. Few women actually get hired on a salary and position commensurate with their education and experience, notwithstanding whether they took a break or not.

While this issue is close to the heart of many corporate leaders, and there is a determined effort to address the problem, it remains a struggle. “Newly available data reveals the scale of India’s gender gap in women’s share among legislators, senior officials and managers, as well as professional and technical workers for the first time in recent years, highlighting that continued efforts will be needed to achieve parity in Economic Opportunity and Participation," the WEF report has highlighted.

Missing societal support

Women do have the dual responsibility of home and work. With no strict guidelines about daycare centres, and often bearing the responsibility of ailing and aged parents, women make the difficult choice of staying home and not going back to work. There is the other issue of security and, sometimes, the societal stigma about working late hours and travelling. Office work conditions are geared for a male workforce and are often not conducive to female employees.

And in the absence of quality control in crèches or reliable childcare options, many women seek employment opportunities with flexible hours or part-time work. Taking a break from a career cannot be held against a competent and talented woman aiming to get back to work but, unfortunately, it seems to be a roadblock which only a few are able to surmount.

The Global Entrepreneurship Summit saw many women leaders from around the world discussing and sharing ideas. This, surely, is a step in the right direction to motivate and empower women and bring them into the labour force. With two-thirds of the female population not working, India is missing out on a vast pool of resources, which is affecting its growth prospects. To take the Indian economy to a higher growth rate in the long run, we need to bring the women back.

Vineeta Dwivedi is an assistant professor and associate head of the management programme for returning women at the S P Jain Institute of Management and Research.

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