3 ways the Government can bridge gender gaps in 2019

By Shravani Prakash, First Published in Hindu Business Line in 2019

US$700 billion to US$2.9 trillion is the additional income India’s economy could earn in 2025 by enabling its women to participate in the economy on par with men – that is what was estimated by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2015. Three years down the line, we don’t seem to have done anything in pursuit of the opportunity.  India’s ranking in the recently released World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Index remained stuck on 108th position for the second year in a row, after falling 21 places before that. Worse still, we ranked lower than last year on the ‘Economic Participation of women in the economy’ and ‘Political Empowerment’ parameters.

2019, however, presents a bunch of opportunities that the Government can leverage to improve India’s rankings and bridge some part of the 33% gender gap. It will, however, require significantly raising the political commitment on the issue, building a strong public-private partnership and initiating Government actions on a similar war-footing as those that helped India jump 53 spots in two years on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.

Following are three sets of action that can get India higher scores on its gender performance: 

(1) Increase the women’s representation in Parliament

The upcoming 2019 election is perhaps the only chance in the next 5 years to improve on India’s score on Political Empowerment by increasing the proportion of women in Parliament (from 12% at present) and women in Ministerial Positions (19%). Women legislators are needed not just because they are likely to advocate for changes that promote women but have also proven to improve the economic performance of their constituencies 1.8% more than male legislatures (UN University).  

The best way to achieve this would be if the Women’s Reservation Bill miraculously gets passed by the Lok Sabha before the elections. But this being pretty unlikely, the other way would be for all Parties to voluntarily reserve quotas for women when drawing up their list of candidates for the 2019 elections. Parties could either decide to field at least 30-40% women candidates or adopt the forty-sixty formula, wherein neither sex comprise less than 40% or more than 60% of candidates given tickets to run in the elections. Cross-country evidence has shown that such voluntary quotas have proved to be the single most effective tool for ‘fast-tracking’ women’s representation in elected bodies of government (World Atlas of Gender Quotas).

(2) Implement pending policy actions to facilitate women to join the workforce:

Several “women-friendly” policy initiatives that are in the draft, bill or concept stage can get India additional points in the Gender Gap Index, and must be brought into force on priority. The Women’s Reservation Bill to increase women in Parliament is one such pending bill. Secondly, implementing the proposed National programme for crèche and day care facilities will make subsidised day care options available to working mothers. Evidence shows that a 50% reduction in price of childcare increases the labour supply of young mothers by 6.5 -10% (IMF).

Thirdly, paid paternity leave can be mandated by either passing the proposed Paternity Bill or amending the Maternity Act to split the existing 26-week paid maternity leave into maternity and paternity or family leave. This will ensure that women are not the sole “cost-burden” on employers. Also, research shows an increase of 6.8% in the proportion of women workers associated with the mandating of paternity leave.    

The Government could also bring in further policy reforms, taking inspiration from recent policy initiatives by other countries– like Malaysia’s tax-incentive given for women re-joining the workforce after a break, France’s fine on companies that underpay women, or Tunisia’s domestic violence law that protects women from abuse and even bans harassment in public.

(3) Ensure that improvements in “Ease of Doing Business” leads to an increase in women’s entrepreneurship

In the last two years, the Modi Government has implemented several steps to improve the ease of doing business in India. It is expected that such simplification of the processes by which businesses get permissions, licenses, registrations or services from Government agencies will consequently give a boost to entrepreneurship in the country. Theoretically speaking, aspiring women entrepreneurs should benefit the most, because dealing with the complications is more challenging for women than men. In practice, however, bridging the gender gap in entrepreneurship will require addressing the additional barriers that women face and taking an “engendered” approach to improving the ease of doing business.

So, in addition to initiatives like the Grand EoDB challenge that is inviting innovative digital solutions for easing Government processes, out-of-the box ideas for addressing specific problems of women entrepreneurs must also be solicited. For instance, since several female-run businesses are in the informal sector and lack access to information, the Government will need to run strategic media campaigns to educate business women about information sources and answer frequently asked questions. Very often, women do not even own mobile phones and are not connected to the internet, so easily accessible information booklets and pamphlets must also be made available. Dedicated women’s help desks at the relevant government departments can facilitate providing them information and addressing complaints. Additionally, it must be ensured that the “mindset” barriers that women face are also addressed by conducting gender sensitivity training programs for Government and banking officials.