Policy options for the Government to advance women in India

By Shravani Prakash

The pink-coloured Economic Survey of India 2018 noted that “Just as India has committed to moving up the ranks in the ease of doing business indicators, it should perhaps do on so gender outcomes as well”

And their prediction is bang on. When India fell one spot in the World Bank’s Doing Business Ranking in 2017 from 130 to 131, the Modi Government took it to heart and mobilised all ministries to work towards making visible improvements – and India jumped 30 places within a year to rank 100 in 2018. But it didn’t seem to hurt anyone as much when India’s rank dropped 21 places in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap rankings in 2017 – it didn’t create the same emotional response this time round.

The status of women can’t be ignored for too long, though. India cannot reap its’ demographic dividend if women are left out of the labour force. There are proven benefits of increasing female labour force participation for the country –  IMF suggests that India’s GDP can rise by 27% if women’s participation in workforce equals men’s and Mckinsey research shows India can earn US$700 billion extra in 2025 by raising women’s workforce participation by 10% – a larger economic impact there than in any other region in the world.

And its not that the Government hasn’t done anything – they have done a lot!

Successive governments have poured huge resources into increasing literacy, thanks to which female literacy rate has grown to 65% in 2011 from 40% in 1991. This is a major contribution to increasing the pool of employable women.

In 2016, the Government unveiled a draft of National Policy for Women, 2016 (to replace the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women, 2001) that seeks to address the emerging challenges confronting Indian women. It is currently open for comments and suggestions. The Maternity Benefit Act provides for paid maternity leave, recently extended from 13 to 26 weeks and now makes it mandatory for establishments with 50 or more employees to provide for creche facilities within or close to their campus. Even The Factories Act of 1947 establishes that employers with 30 or more women employees must provide childcare services in factory premises. The revised Companies Act in 2013 made it mandatory for all listed companies and other large public limited companies to appoint at least one-woman director to their boards.

The practice of Gender budgeting is being followed since 2005, where all ministries make allocations to “address the development needs of women”. There are 57 state-level “Gender Budgeting Cells” to facilitate gender-fairness in budget allocations. To promote women’s entrepreneurship, the Government has initiated funding programs like The Stand-Up India Scheme for Women and Mudra Yojana Scheme For Women. Initiatives such as ’’Skill India’ and ’Make in India’ include quotas to ensure a certain proportion of trainees are women.

But things haven’t worked out yet and these initiatives haven’t translated into increased Female LFP. As the World Bank study suggests, “conventional approaches to increasing female labour force participation such as education and skills and legal provisions will be insufficient. Policies should canter on promoting the acceptability of female employment and investing in growing economic sectors that are more attractive for female employment”

Therefore, the Government needs to implement some really big ideas and implement big scale measures towards the agenda of advancing women. Here are some suggestions:

(1) At the largest scale, we probably require a revolution – a program like “Swachh Bharat” or “Make in India”. Maybe even bigger. The Government can take inspiration from the Rosie the Riveter campaign that ran during 2nd World War in America to attract women to work while men were at war. Images of women workers were widely used by government in posters and commercial advertising – resulting in women’s workforce participation rising by 57% in just 4 years

(2) Create a strong partnership with the Private Sector and get them on board, on the same page. Businesses need to be shown the big benefits of hiring more women. And the Government needs to invite suggestions from the businesses on what all policy measures and concessions that can be provided to facilitate them. For this, the Government could create something along The World Economic Forum’s Gender Task Force model

(3) Address the perceived high costs of employing and retaining women that business have to incur. Especially it is crucial to find an alternative model of financing the (26 weeks) maternity leave,since currently the exclusive burden of financing the pay-out to women during the maternity leave is entirely on the employer. This places cost-burdens that may lead SMEs, start-ups and smaller companies to be biased towards not hiring women. Therefore, the Government think about introducing financing of maternity benefits through social security schemes or public funds to reduce employers’ liability, as is done by nearly 100 other countries. Many governments use. employment-related social insurance (similar to pension schemes), public or government funds-finances or a combination of employer-liability plus social insurance (“mixed system) to finance such benefits.

(4) Political commitment to gender parity needs to be showcased in every way possible. Some ways this can be done include –

  • Developing a clear, government-wide strategy that outlines a course for gender equality reform,supported by realistic targets and strategic milestones. Implementing a systematic and whole-of-government approach to promoting gender equality is needed by embedding gender perspectives in all stages of government decision-making, from design to implementation and evaluation of laws and policies.
  • Establishing gender diversity targets in all public institutions such as the government (parliament), courts and public-sector bodies has proved to be an effective measure furthering gender goals. Research suggests that gender diversity in decision making and a greater share of women in legislatures leads to lower levels of inequality in countries.
  • Gathering and using reliable evidence and statistics dis-aggregated by gender for informed policy decisions. Many countries increasingly collect data that measure both women and men’s empowerment and for this purpose have made different provisions for mainstreaming a gender perspective in national statistical systems, performance measurement and monitoring mechanisms.
  • Setting Gender quotas in candidacy of political parties, mandated by law, ensure adequate representation of women in elections with penalties for non-compliance. For example, The Portuguese Parity Act required candidate lists for elections to the national Parliament, the European Parliament and local government to include a minimum of 33% of each gender (noncompliance leads to reduction in campaign funding). Spain’s Equality Law required a minimum of 40% female candidates. In countries like Brazil and Argentina, quota laws require all parties to nominate women to 30% of electable positions on their lists of candidates.

(5) Implement smart policy measures to address deeply embedded social norms and ingrained mindsets that are the biggest stumbling blocks to women’s advancement. The could include-

  • Innovative tax incentives – income tax breaks to women returning after a career break; corporate tax breaks for day cares; deduction for money spent on day-care for dependent children; tax wavers for investments into women-owned businesses.
  • Consider adding a “gender neutrality” element to curriculum of educational institutions,right from schools, colleges, MBA and all professional degree colleges could consider, to prevent any biases from developing in students right from a nascent stage. The HRD Ministry could a play a role here.
  • Introduce an awards program for honoring “Champions of Women” people and businesses who show take big steps for advancing women

(6) Establish a National Task force for gender parity – Some countries have established national “task forces” for addressing current gender gaps and reshaping gender parity for the future, overseen by the World Economic Forum. Specific focus is given to closing gaps in participation, remuneration and leadership, and preparing companies and countries for gender parity in the future of work. Pilots in Mexico, Turkey, Japan and Korea have proved to be successful and task Forces are currently established in Chile, Argentina, Panama, Peru and France.

End of the day, the Government must realise the scale of impact that it’s policies have on many decisions that women make. Conducive policy measures can go a long way in alleviating the constraints on women’s freedom to choose whether or not to enter the labour market and the barriers they face once they are in the workplace. It is with emotion that the Government, in partnership with businesses must pledge to take invigorated actions towards advancing Indian women.