Arrested Development

India’s miserable record on women’s rights threatens to stunt its economic growth.

By Sheelah Kolhatkar


India is in the midst of a moral crisis. The deadly gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi last December focused attention on the mistreatment of women in Indian society, though not all the outrage was directed at the perpetrators. Rural politicians blamed the victim for being out in public. When demonstrators took to the streets of the capital to demand justice for the woman’s killers, police fired tear gas at them. For Indians justifiably proud of the country’s economic advances, the episode has been an unsettling reminder of how far India still has to go when it comes to defending the rights of women. “The brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a woman who was a symbol of all that new India strives to be, has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil,” said Indian President Pranab Mukherjee during a nationally televised address in January. “It is time for the nation to reset its moral compass.”

The inability of the world’s largest democracy to guarantee the security of half its population is indeed a moral crisis, but it’s also an economic one. India has been celebrated for its steep growth and rapidly expanding middle class, as well as its position as an exciting market for foreign multinationals. Yet it has achieved these gains with astonishingly low economic participation by women; those who enter the business world often find themselves in chauvinistic and threatening work environments.

The lamentable state of gender equality belies the image of a prosperous, modern India. It also suggests why the country’s economic miracle has stalled. The continuing exclusion of India’s female human capital from professional life is something that the country can no longer afford.

In a paper called “India’s Economy: The Other Half,” published last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Persis Khambatta, a fellow at the center, and Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, point out that India has the world’s second-largest workforce, at 478 million people. And yet the proportion of women in the workforce is only 24 percent. The number of senior-level female employees sits at 5 percent, compared with a global average of about 20 percent, and almost half of all women stop working before they reach the middle of their careers, in large part because even well-educated Indians cling to traditional views of women’s roles.

“It has a lot to do with familial pressure and cultural pressure,” Khambatta says. “Once a woman gives birth, they’re expected to be home taking care of the family, and in many cases they’re taking care of their in-laws as well. There are family expectations, and marriage expectations.” As India-modernizes, gender attitudes have retrenched. “There are so many more women in the public space, especially in urban centers,” Khambatta says. “There has been a sort of societal male backlash.”

The 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, which is published by the World Economic Forum and analyzes 135 countries on benchmarks such as economic participation and political empowerment, gives some indication of just how far down the economic ladder India’s women find themselves. The country is ranked 105th overall, after Belize, Cambodia, and Burkina Faso. India’s standing is skewed slightly upward because of high scores in women’s political participation relative to other countries — thanks in part to Sonia Gandhi, head of the Indian National Congress party, as well as improved female-representation in local politics. Judged on a purely economic basis, however, India falls to 123, with only 12 nations ranking lower.

This gender imbalance poses a major threat to India’s growth prospects, to say nothing of its ambition to become a world power. Compare India with China, whose economy outperformed India’s significantly in 2011, at 9.3 percent compared with India’s 6.9 percent, according to the World Bank. There are many reasons for the difference, but an important one is the robust participation of women in China’s workforce.

A report published by Gallup, which conducted surveys of the two countries from 2009 to 2012, found that “Chinese women are taking part in their country’s labor force in vastly greater numbers than Indian women are. Gender gaps are also much narrower in China than in India, and all but disappearing among Chinese with the highest level of education.” Seventy percent of Chinese women participate in the labor force, according to Gallup, and they have an easier time finding full-time jobs. The female literacy rate is also magnitudes higher than in India. As Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, said in 2011, India’s economic growth rate could make a “quantum jump” of 4.2 percentage points if women were given greater opportunity to contribute to professional life.

In response to the New Delhi tragedy, political leaders have taken some steps to deter violence against women. A “fast track” court has been set up for the trial of five of the six attackers. A special-government report issued on Jan. 23 points to many other problems that need to be addressed. In addition to recommending a major overhaul of the police and criminal justice system, the study acknowledges rampant discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, and a cultural preference for sons over daughters that has led to a population imbalance.

Addressing such problems isn’t solely the responsibility of India’s government. A concerted push by businesses on behalf of women would both improve the lives of millions and make the economy more globally competitive. As Bloomberg Businessweek has previously reported, some companies operating in India have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect and retain their female workers: Google maintains taxis to shepherd employees safely home, while Boehringer Ingelheim, a German-drugmaker, pays for women employees to bring their mothers with them on business trips to avoid traveling alone. Indian companies Wipro and Infosys have policies that help working mothers, such as on-site child care during school holidays and extended maternity leave. Ernst & Young, the accounting giant, may be the most creative, launching an education campaign for parents and inlaws of female employees to persuade them to let the women continue to work. The sooner that other companies follow their example, by aggressively recruiting, retaining, and promoting women, the better off India will be.

Until Indians embrace the economic benefits that flow from female empowerment — and work to change the social attitudes that hold women back — the country will remain in a state of arrested development. A great democracy and its people deserve better.


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