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A woman colleague and I were arguing about gender equality when the Supreme Court made this impactful observation: “The structures of our society have been created by males and for males." I still fancied my chances of winning the argument, but then came the 2021 WEF Global Gender Gap report, which confirmed its 2016 finding of a decline in worldwide progress towards gender parity. That sealed the debate in favour of my colleague.

Over 2.8 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. As many as 104 countries still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, 59 countries have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and it is astonishing that a handful of countries still allow husbands to legally stop their wives from working. Globally, women’s participation in the labour force is estimated at 63% (as against 94% of men who participate), but India’s is at a dismal 25% or so currently. Most women are in informal and vulnerable employment—domestic help, agriculture, etc—and are always paid less than men. Recent reports from Assam suggest that women workers in plantations are paid much less than men and never promoted to supervisory roles. The gender wage gap is about 24% globally, and women have lost far more jobs than men during lockdowns. The problem of gender disparity is compounded by hurdles put up by governments, society and businesses: unequal access to social security schemes, banking services, education, digital services and so on, even as a glass ceiling has kept leadership roles out of women’s reach.

Yes, many governments and businesses had been working on parity before the pandemic struck. But the global gender gap, defined by differences reflected in the social, political, intellectual, cultural and economic attainments or attitudes of men and women, will not narrow in the near future without all major stakeholders working together on a clear agenda—that of economic growth by inclusion. The WEF report estimates 135 years to close the gap at our current rate of progress based on four pillars: educational attainment, health, economic participation and political empowerment. India has slipped from rank 112 to 140 in a single year, confirming how hard women were hit by the pandemic. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two Asian countries that fared worse.

We in business can play a major role in supporting the government in driving inclusion. We can learn from global companies that have seen a positive impact. Companies with greater female representation have achieved better productivity, customer retention and profitability, say studies. We need to get our chief human resource officers to act swiftly on this.

Here are a few things we must do:

One, frame policies for equal-opportunity employment. Use technology and artificial intelligence to eliminate biases of gender, caste, etc, and select candidates at all levels on merit. Numerous surveys indicate that women in general have a better chance of landing jobs if their gender is not known to recruiters.

Two, foster a culture of gender sensitivity. Take a review of current policies and move from gender-neutral to gender-sensitive. Encourage and insist on diversity and inclusion at all levels, and promote more women internally to leadership roles. Demolish silos to let women grab potential opportunities in hitherto male-dominant roles. Work-from-home has taught us how efficiently women can manage flex-timings and productivity.

Three, deploy corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds for the education and skilling of women and girls at the bottom of the pyramid. CSR allocations to toilet building, the PM-Cares fund and firms’ own trusts could be re-channelled for this.

Four, get more women into research and development (R&D) roles. A study of over 4,000 companies found that more women in R&D jobs resulted in radical innovation. It appears women score far higher than men in championing change. If you seek growth from affordable products and services for low-income groups, women often have the best ideas.

Five, break barriers to allow progress. Cultural and structural issues must be fixed. Unconscious biases and discrimination are rampant even in highly-esteemed organizations. Establish fair and transparent human resource policies.

Six, get involved in local communities to engage them. As Michael Porter said, it is not possible for businesses to sustain long-term shareholder value without ensuring the welfare of the communities they exist in. It is in the best interest of enterprises to engage with local communities to understand and work towards lowering cultural and other barriers in society. It will also help connect with potential customers, employees and special interest groups driving the gender-equity agenda and achieve better diversity.

In the end, business leaders with a conscience can achieve far more than governments can, by influencing policymakers and also by walking the talk of empowering women. It makes eminent business sense, as my colleague had argued (and won)—if only we all think about and act on it.

M. Muneer is co-founder of non-profit Medici Institute

Chitra Talwar contributed to this column.

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