When India was celebrating the success of its first Mars mission in 2014, one of the most powerful images that quickly went viral was that of a bunch of smiling Indian women resplendent in gorgeous saris greeting each other as their male colleagues looked on admiringly at the India Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) mission control in Bengaluru. It was a watershed moment as far as the Indian Space Programme is concerned. But, more importantly, it shattered stereotypes about space research and Indian women. Women are an integral part of the scientific community and at ISRO they are playing key roles in the numerous successful missions of the agency. The rare peek into ‘women power’ at ISRO is proof that providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, workplace parity and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economic growth that will benefit society and humanity at large. In a rapidly changing global economy, acknowledging and investing in women can yield a significant return in the form of gender dividend.
According to a study by McKinsey, if women played an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as US$28 trillion could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025. As more and more women prove their mettle as engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers, scientific organisations are realising the diversity of thought, creativity and innovation that women bring to the table. This is leading to increased representation of women in the innovation ecosystem of India. It is heartening to note that one-third of the 3,000 entrepreneurial startups in the life sciences sector have been founded by women! Over 20 per cent of ISRO’s over 16,000 employees are women. In my company, Biocon, over 30 per cent of the scientists are women.
I believe women represent 50 per cent of the world’s economic potential. To harness this potential, we will need to provide women with the opportunity to pursue economic opportunities in an enabling environment, which also includes workplace flexibility like adequate parental leave, flexible work hours, gender-sensitive policies and wage parity with men.
Glaring Gender Inequality
While women have made significant gains in the past decade in terms of education, health, economic participation, and political leadership, we still have a long way to go when it comes to attaining gender equality. The latest Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, shows that at our current rate of ‘progress’ it will take 217 years to close the gender gap. The report, for example, showed that the global average annual earnings for women in 2017 were US$12,000 compared to US$21,000 for men. Women are being paid less for working the same hours, performing the same tasks, and meeting the same goals as men do. And this is happening globally! Women not only get lower salaries, they are also under-represented in senior management.
The 2016 Fortune 500 list showed that just 21 US companies had women at the helm, compared to 24 in 2015. Or, to look at it in another way, women held a mere four per cent of the CEO positions in America’s 500 biggest companies. In India, women earn 25 per cent less than men, according to the Monster Salary Index (MSI) on gender for 2016. While men earned a median gross hourly salary of Rs 346, women earned Rs 260 in 2016. Despite women beginning to form a visible part of any organisation, gender diversity at the board level is still sub-optimal in India. Women accounted for about 15 per cent of board seats in listed Indian companies as of Oct 31, 2017, up from just four per cent three years ago, following a SEBI directive mandating one woman director on the board. A failure to recognise the contributions of meritorious, hard-working and deserving women through parity in pay and promotions, would lead to corporates losing much-needed talent.
India needs to do more to close the gender gap
While India has implemented several women-centric programmes to ensure their education, health, safety and economic participation, these are yet to substantially move the needle! Shockingly, India slipped 21 places on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap index 2017. India’s 108th rank, in fact, is the lowest since the WEF first started measuring the gender gap in 2006. Moreover, India was ranked 29 out of 31 countries surveyed on ease of doing business for women in the Global Women Entrepreneurs Leader Report. India also ranked third lowest in the proportion of business leadership roles held by women, according to a global survey by Grant Thornton. According to the surevy, only 17 per cent of senior roles are held by women in India. Gender bias continues to prevail in venture funding too. In 2017, only two per cent of all startup fundraising in India went to women founders, according to YourStory. It is clear that gender equitable policies are not enough to bring about gender parity, business leaders will have to walk the talk and ditch their biases and preferences for having men in critical roles.
Women are naturally blessed with special attributes like compassion, sensitivity, the ability to multi-task and the capacity to solve problems with a clear head. Moreover, women are good team players and are more democratic as team leaders. These are the skills that every industry or country needs to reach its full potential. India today has enormously talented women in leadership positions and many more who are rising to the top. These women are making their mark across a diverse range of businesses from banking to biotechnology and software to space technology. India could add US$700 billion of additional GDP in 2025, adding 1.4 percentage points to the country’s annual GDP growth, if it is able to raise women’s participation in the labour force by ten percentage points in the next eight years, according to McKinsey.
There is a newfound confidence among Indian women, a sense of self-belief that they can excel in any domain, compete with their male counterparts on a level-playing field, attain leadership positions and become role models for all. If we can harness these attributes effectively, India’s future growth can be more inclusive and equitable. Ending the gender divide by giving women equal opportunities through economic empowerment is not only morally right, it is good economics. Specifically, India can reap the benefits of a gender dividend only through increased investments in women and girls.
Things India needs to do to ensure women first, prosperity for all
1 Give a voice to women & girls | For inclusive policymaking that addresses the real problems women face every day in accessing health, education and jobs, we need appropriate stakeholder engagement.
2 Make education curriculum gender sensitive | While progress has been made in increasing access to education for girls, much needs to be done on ensuring textbooks promote positive gender roles instead of carrying stereotyped images.
3 Encourage girls to join STEM | Contrary to the mindset that science and maths is not for women, we need to encourage girls and women pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education.
4 Empower women at community level | Empowering women at the community level helps enhance girls’ education. When mothers are educated and empowered to make choices in their lives, they enable their daughters to go to school.
5 Equal pay for equal work | We need to ask why women continue to be paid lower than men even when they put in equal or more effort and time at the workplace. A worldwide campaign to promote ‘equal pay for equal work’ should encourage governments to bring in legislation aimed at giving women their due.
6 Increase political representation | Increased representation of women at the local, state and national government levels will allow for the articulation of legislation and policies that best address women’s issues and help close the gender gap.
7 Encourage women into non-traditional vocations | Focus on skill development that equips women to take up ‘non-traditional’ vocations such as secretaries, nurses, teachers and retail sales clerks.
8 Invest in women’s health | India spends less on women’s health than on men’s across all demographic and socio-economic groups. This needs to change because studies have shown that good maternal health benefits children’s cognitive development, behaviour and school performance, as well as the health and productivity of other family members.
9 Stop violence against women | Gender inequality allows for violence against women to continue unabated. The government needs to take urgent action to tackle a weak system of law enforcement and policing that leaves women vulnerable. Concerted effort can catalyse legislative changes needed for the effective functioning of special courts that can deliver speedy justice to women victims of sexual violence.
10 End child marriage | Despite rules to prevent child marriage, the practice continues to be rampant in India. Official data reveals that almost one in every three married women in India is below 18 years of age. Child marriage is a major impediment to girls’ education. If we want girls to be able to complete their education we have to end child marriage.
(Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is Chairperson and Managing Director, Biocon Ltd)...