Women's Reservation Bill: A lesson for India Inc

How reservation bill can boost women's labour force participation
How reservation bill can boost women's labour force participation


  • India today has one of the lowest figures for women’s labour force participation for any country outside the Islamic world

The government of India is going ahead with a long-pending proposal to reserve one-third of legislative seats for women. There is every reason for India Inc to draw inspiration from the move and take steps to raise the presence of women in the workforce at every level, from the board to the shop floor. The result would not just be good for society at large, even corporate results could improve: studies have shown diverse board rooms improve decision-making that determine bottom lines.

India today has one of the lowest figures for women’s labour force participation for any country outside the Islamic world: the percentage of working-age women at work is in the low twenties, below Pakistan’s 25%. That figure is 38% for Bangladesh, 61% for China, 54% for Brazil and 47% for the world at large. The figure is consistently high in Southeast Asia, the region from which India hopes to relocate some supply chains that eventually snake through China: 69% in Vietnam, 54% in Indonesia, 59% in Thailand. India, though, comfortably beats Iran (16%), Afghanistan (16%) and Iraq (11%), but not Turkiye (34%).

A recent World Bank blog reported the finding that if women worked on par with men and earned on par with men, for the world on average, per capita incomes would be 20% higher. The IMF estimated a few years ago that India’s GDP would be 27% higher if India were to live up to the Constitution’s promise of gender equality.

Reserving one-third of all legislative seats for women would not, by itself, improve female labour force participation, or remove the constraints that prevent women from working. But it would certainly allow more women into public life and even larger numbers into the public sphere. Formal sector work that begins at ends at fixed hours and pays a decent wage is the key to raising women’s employment, and changing attitudes to it.

India’s traditional culture does not support women’s large-scale entry into the workforce. Decent women used to be expected to veil their faces and respect the traditional division of roles at home and in society. Traditional Islamic culture seeks to put women in the purdah and deny them equality in a great many things.

Women have to fight the constraints placed on them by tradition, to get educated, to enter the workforce and stay in the workforce while taking on the additional task of childcare, while already bearing the burden of caring for the aged, and often the spouse too. Then, there is sexual harassment at the workplace, often on the way to and returning from work. The state can and must institute and implement policies to help women overcome such hurdles.

Once in the workplace, they are not seen naturally as contenders for leadership, even when deserving, qualified and experienced, and those that do rise through the ranks do so, by breaking "glass ceilings".

The difficulty is that there is no single overriding constraint, removing which would automatically raise labour force participation rates for women. Beti padhao, beti badhao — a government slogan to educate and raise girl children (instead of converting them into foeticide and infant mortality statistics) — could end up adding to the educated unemployed, if other constraints on women’s work are not removed.

Strict enforcement of law and order, as well as regulations such as workplace arrangements to guard against and penalize sexual harassment, would address part of the problem. But traditional expectations that women would take care of the home, children and the elderly even when they go out and work make working life very hard for women. Even women who earn far above the average for society at large can experience time poverty of a severe kind.

Indian professional women manage some kind of work-life balance, ultimately, by transferring some of their work to other women, who get paid for taking on such delegated work.

In the face of such challenges, Indian women have still demonstrated their professional excellence when given the chance, whether at controlling missions to the moon at the Indian Space Research Organisation or at the apex of the banking system.

Childcare facilities and a sharing of care work and domestic chores by men are essential ingredients to healthy families and robust work participation rates. These are difficult to bring about purely by fiat or company diktat. The challenge is to make changes in the dominant discourse on gender. And this is where reserving one-third of legislative seats for women would make a crucial difference.

The law might not be implemented in time for the 2024 elections, yet passing such a law would have a bracing effect on public perceptions about the role of women in society - a key change necessary for more women employment.

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