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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Empowering Women @Work

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), India ranks 139th in women’s participation in the labour force. ... THE WEF survey ranks India a high 15th on the parameter of political empowerment

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


Women worldwide are an under-used and at times an under-valued asset. Some of the most successful countries globally have a high percentage of women in their workforce: Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands are examples.

India is a laggard. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), India ranks 139th in women’s participation in the labour force. Ironically, the WEF survey ranks India a high 15th on the parameter of political empowerment. That is due to two reasons. First, the 50 per cent reservation for women in several Panchayats and Zilla Parishads across the country. Second, less happily, the presence of dynasts in Indian politics – wives, daughters, nieces and sisters.

Nonetheless, the overall picture that emerges from the WEF survey is worrying. Women in India rank 112th in “educational attainment” and 141st in “health and survival”,  pointing  to India’s abysmal healthcare facilities, especially in villages, with women bearing the brunt of poor medical care.  

India does a little better on wage equality, ranking 80th globally. The survey puts the median urban wage salary for Indian men at Rs 345.8 per hour and for Indian women at 259.8 per hour. The gender wage gap of around 25 per cent has remained steady over 2014-16. Slicing these numbers reveals interesting nuggets. The wage gap between Indian men and women falls to 21.5 per cent in the services sector. In manufacturing it rises to nearly 30 per cent. As India’s services sector grows (it currently contributes 60 per cent to GDP), women’s participation in the workforce will rise and the gender wage gap fall. Women are already closing the gap in industries like hospitality, travel, healthcare and media. India has the world’s largest number of women pilots. Several airlines fly with all-women crew – pilots and cabin attendants. In entrepreneurship too Indian women are beginning to do well. A Mastercard survey ranked Indian women 49th in business ownership.
At the Davos summit in January 2018, International Monetary Fund (IMF) president Christine Lagarde said India’s GDP could expand by 27 per cent if  “India’s women participate as much as men” in the workforce. It is in politics though where the main challenge lies. Only 11.8 per cent of Lok Sabha MPs (and 11 per cent of  Rajya Sabha MPs) are women. This despite the ubiquity of dynasty. Without women political dynasts, the numbers would be even lower. Out of 193 United Nations members, India figures in 148th place on political representation for women in legislatures.

The mothballed Women’s Reservation Bill which mandates a 33 per cent quota for women in the Lok Sabha has been sabotaged by regressive parties like the SP and RJD for over a decade. India has had a woman Prime Minister, a woman President and several women Speakers of the Lok Sabha. Most have been from political families. Women’s empowerment in politics is therefore, clearly trapped in feudal tokenism.  

Opponents of the Women’s Reservation Bill argue that the same feudal system will operate, albeit on a much larger scale, if one-third of the seats in parliament are reserved for women. Female relatives of male politicians will be nominated to constituencies and the Lok Sabha will be packed with mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and nieces of male political dynasts. That, they say, will defeat the very purpose of the Bill.

This is a self-serving argument. While feudal nominations will occur, 33 per cent reservation for women will open up opportunities for women professionals as well. With time, their presence will grow. Meritorious, self-made candidates will eventually weed out figurehead women dynasts during elections. The quality of  parliamentary debate will improve. In countries with significant women legislators, disruptions are less frequent.

The general bias against women though, remains strong in Indian society. A new global Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index recently measured women’s well-being and their inclusion in justice. The index is headed by Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. India ranks a low 131st, underscoring the lack of justice and equality for women in both urban and rural India. Men of course are the societal problem. As many as 25 per cent of Indian men surveyed said it was “unacceptable for women to work”. The global average for such misogyny is 19 per cent. Canada scores the highest with 0 per cent men saying women shouldn’t work. Pakistan scores among the lowest: 73 per cent Pakistani men think women shouldn’t work.  

Sport is an area where Indian women have excelled in the past few years. From badminton and wrestling to boxing and cricket, Indian women have shown that given the opportunity and a level playing field, they can match or exceed the achievements of men. There’s no reason to believe the same principle cannot apply, with some caveats, to business and politics.  

Women obviously are wired differently from men. They have two X chromosomes; men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome (which is one-third the size of the X chromosome). It though is the dwarf  Y chromosome that gives men testosterone. Confronted by the same crisis situation, a man will react with a “fight or flight” action while women will react with a “tend or befriend” response.  
These biological differences played a big part in demarcating gender roles in primitive societies. Hard labour, wars and hunting for food were at a premium. Men were providers and protectors. Held back by continuous pregnancies and child rearing, women had to accept a subservient role. As modern society and industry developed, the nature of work shifted from labour to skill. This is why  women in advanced economies are now  playing key decision-making roles. The old hunter-gatherer advantage men possessed over women is diminishing rapidly. Women’s genetic make-up predisposes them to soft skills. Companies globally recognise this and increasingly promote women to key leadership positions.  

Yet, as women progress, issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace need to be addressed. The “me-too” movement has highlighted the exploitation of  vulnerable women in Hollywood and corporate workplaces. In India, similar cases have begun to emerge, pointing to an old culture of misogyny that must be scrubbed as Indian women increasingly occupy positions of  leadership.