Let us suppose for a moment that you have lost your job. You go home and sit down with your spouse to discuss how to get by, now that you will not be getting your salary. One possibility you discuss is doing away with some of the household help. Who would you sack first: your driver or your maid?

The chances are that it is the driver who will be told to look for another job. The driver is likely to be a man while the maid is likely to be a woman. Let us assume now that they are husband and wife. What this means is that the wife will soon be supporting the family on her own while the husband will be out, looking for work.

Extrapolate this on a national scale and what you get is a mancession, or a recession that hurts men more than women.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says in a new report that the current recession in the rich world has harmed men more than women. For example, 119 men have lost their jobs in the US for every 100 women who have lost their jobs. The unemployment rate among men is rising more than that of women in most of these countries, with South Korea a notable exception.

One likely reason is the nature of job losses in the rich countries. The worst affected sectors such as construction and automobiles tend to employ men, while the sort of work that women tend to do—such as teaching, medical care or government work—is less prone to cyclical downturns. In fact, such work may be benefiting due to the usual increase in government spending during a recession.

There has been a lot of speculation about whether the current economic crisis marks a radical move away from the old gender balance in rich nations. It is hard to tell right now, but what OECD data, as analysed by its in-house Factblog, does show is that discrimination against women persists even in societies that have grown wealthy. The median income of a man working in a rich country is 17.6% higher than the median income of a woman worker. Similarly, men have 35 minutes more leisure time per day than women. That number goes up to 80 minutes a day in Italy, or 440 hours a year. “If we assume a working week of about 40 hours, that means the equivalent of an extra 11 weeks of leave for men per year," says Factblog.

Such discrimination is likely to be even higher in countries such as ours. A new report published last week by the United Nations Development Programme said the average income of an Indian male is three times that of an Indian woman—$4,102 versus $1,304, based on purchasing power parity.

The labour participation rate of Indian women in 2007 was half the rate in East Asian economies. Indian women also tend to be trapped in low-productivity work because of gender stereotypes and genuine ground-level problems. For example, men migrate to cities in search of higher incomes while the women get left behind to tend the family farm.

These are huge issues that tend to get ignored in the noisy debates about the role of women in Indian society. It is critical that more girls get better healthcare, finish school, and pick up enough skills to get paid work that tends to provide higher incomes. There are many facets to the economic empowerment of women, and I would not even pretend that they could be encapsulated in a short newspaper column. But providing women with skills to participate in a modern economy is surely part of the answer. The fact that India has a robust service economy should help.

The new Economic Survey that was released by the finance ministry on 25 February has some interesting data on public and private sector employment by gender between 1991 and 2007. Male employment fell from 23 million to 22 million. Female employment went up from 3.8 million to 5.3 million. The numbers are still in favour of men, but the trend seems to be working in favour of women because a lot of employment has been generated in sectors such as “finance, insurance, real estate etc." and “community, social and personal services".

The gender issue is now being dominated by the heated debate on the proposed legislation to reserve one-third of the seats in Indian Parliament for women. There has been a lot of valid criticism about whether such a move is consistent with the basic framework of the Constitution. There have also been fears that political families will use the law to put up “their" women for elections to protect the family turf. The entire discussion on political voice is an important one in a male-dominated country such as India.

But more meaningful empowerment of women will take place only when they get better jobs, higher wages and face less discrimination at the workplace. It is sobering to note that even the wealthiest countries in the world have been unable to correct the gender imbalance in their economies.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is managing editor of Mint. Comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com