The economic well-being of women, in five charts

Every year, International Women’s Day on 8 March gives us a lot to cheer about—but it gives even more to introspect. Photo: iStock
Every year, International Women’s Day on 8 March gives us a lot to cheer about—but it gives even more to introspect. Photo: iStock


Women are scarce in India’s workforce by global standards, struggle to reach the top of corporate leadership, and face biases when they go looking for startup funding. However, they are also increasingly taking control of their own money, data shows

Every year, International Women’s Day on 8 March gives us a lot to cheer about—but it gives even more to introspect. Despite gradual gains over the decades, Indian women’s economic well-being and financial independence remains a far cry, continually hindered by stubborn structural and societal barriers. As we celebrate women’s successes, here is a status check to remember why snail-pace progress is not enough:

1. All work, no pay

Indian women may be forging headlines in leadership roles, but their workforce participation is unusually dismal by global standards. Just a dozen countries fare worse. Despite better education and opportunities, the last three decades have seen a continuous decline in women’s workforce participation, primarily driven by the rural sector, where it almost halved. Economist Mitali Nikore attributes this to mechanisation and automation in agriculture.

Conservative norms dictate that women shoulder the burden of unpaid household labour instead of going out to work. Women spend seven hours a day on such work, compared to 2.9 hours for men, showed a 2019 Time Use Survey. No wonder, the pandemic hurt women workers disproportionately.

A policy focus on relieving women from such duties could help. Nikore sees solutions in formalising affordable care services and resolving infrastructural issues such as safe mobility.

The declining labour participation is not only costing women, but also the economy: parity could lift India’s GDP by 27%, the International Monetary Fund estimates.


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2. Skewed at top

Women are also grossly underrepresented in the top echelons of corporate leadership. Just 9.6% of the non-independent executive directors in India’s listed companies are women, rising from 5.4% in 2014, showed a Mint analysis. The progress has been too slow for a period that has seen increasing demand for parity. Nearly one-fourth of the gains came from sectors such as banking and finance, fast-moving consumer goods, and healthcare.

The disparity is stark in compensation, too. The pay gap widens as women rise in their careers, shows research by Promila Agarwal, an associate professor at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Women at lower rungs earn 2.2% less than men, but the deficit rises to 6.1% at executive levels, showed Agarwal’s review of an analysis by salary data company Payscale. She suggested that companies need conscious effort to redesign compensation systems in a way that pay gaps can be checked if they widen due to biases and mindsets.

3. Funding filters

The biases also play out adversely for enterprising women who try to rise by themselves. Limited financial access hinders progress for women entrepreneurs. Even though 2021 saw more women-led startups reaching $1 billion in valuation than ever before, less than 15% of India’s unicorns are run by women, shows VCCEdge data.

“It’s not a matter of supply for sure and we have unequivocally proven that," said Nruthya Madappa, director at 3one4 Capital, an early-stage venture capital (VC) firm. “It's a matter of how we systemically enable a lot of these brilliant women to continue to build and scale."

Just 7% of the total private equity and VC funds in emerging markets goes to women-led firms, said a 2019 report by International Finance Corporation. VCs with women partners were twice as likely to invest in firms with gender-diverse management, research from the US shows.

“But there are so few of us on this side of the table, in leadership positions, making investment calls," Madappa said.

Indian women
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Indian women

4. Financial freedom

Financial inclusion of women can play a key role in economic empowerment, and this has picked up in recent years. The share of women among individual borrowers has risen from 34.7% as of September 2021 from 27.5% five years ago, while their share in total loan amount rose to 22.4% from 19.5%, shows data from the Reserve Bank of India.

The main catalysts for the growth have been credit predominantly given to women on subsidised rates under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and increasing share of microfinance in credit, where the main customers are women-led groups, said Revati Kasture, senior director at CareEdge. “In general, women borrowers have a much higher propensity to save and willingness to repay loans," she said.

Notwithstanding these developments, further progress needs to be made to achieve greater financial equality and inclusion of women.

5. Women traders

On the bright side, more women are now dabbling in stock markets, which have traditionally been a male bastion. Female participation in capital markets has grown, and analysts estimate that women now account for almost 25-30% of the traders’ tribe. The number of new women investors has more than doubled every year since 2019, primarily led by smaller cities, said an ICICI Securities report. Younger women (aged 25-35) are leading investment trends, as the pandemic has helped catalyse investors’ transition to stock markets.

“Women tend to be more patient and risk-averse than men and can become excellent investors in the long run," said Vijay Chandok, managing director at ICICI Securities. As women become financially independent they will channelize their savings and investments into the market, analysts said.

While the government can do some heavy lifting by offering incentives, the market ecosystem could also raise awareness.“There could be tailor-made products and services for women investors which would help them plan their finances," Chandok added.

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