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Published on: March 30, 2022, 5:45 p.m.
Women’s economic empowerment
  • At the factory level, women workers have been made aware of their legal rights and access to remedy for workplace grievances

By Susan Ferguson. The author is UN Women Representative for India

Women represent 50 per cent of the world’s population. Achieving the political, economic and social equality of all women, therefore, stands to benefit half the globe directly, with positive impacts on the other half through economic development. And, yet, women face barriers right from birth. In India and other parts of the world, deeply ingrained societal preferences for the male child means that women face discrimination across many aspects of their lives, from birth onwards.

As an example, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare in India identifies the child sex ratio of 918 females per 1,000 males (Census 2011) as a significant area of concern. This has gone down from 927 in 2001 and 945 in 1991, although the sex ratio at birth has shown some improvement from 892 in 2000-02 to 909 in 2011-13.

Physical and sexual violence against women at home and at work reduces women’s ability to make choices over their own lives, including their right to work. This violence is an issue affecting at least one-third of the world’s women. Women spend as much as 10 times the time that men do on unpaid domestic chores, which inhibits the time woman are able to devote to work outside the home. The outbreak of Covid-19 has exacerbated this situation. Many women have had to stop working formally to devote themselves solely to unpaid domestic work.

In the decade before the pandemic, female labour force participation had already been trending downward. As workers, women are employed largely in informal jobs and in less regulated sectors, which leave them without formal protections. Women hold less positions of leadership in the workspace. Although numbers are increasing, in India, women accounted for just 16.3 per cent of the new board appointments in 2020, as compared to about 30 per cent new board appointees globally. 

However, over the years, the government of India and the states have taken many important initiatives to increase women’s participation in the workforce -- starting from notifications removing restrictions on women’s right to work at night in factories or in underground mines to mandating at least one woman director on boards of certain companies (with turnover of Rs300+ crore). Comprehensive maternity benefits and protection from sexual harassment at the workplace has been crucial to enable women to remain in the workplace safely. Initiatives such as National Rural Livelihoods Mission, National Skills Development Mission and Start-up India are all examples of progressive policies, programmes and legislation, to increase the number of women in the workforce. 

Role of business: Governments have a critical role to play in setting an enabling environment for women’s economic empowerment. But business also plays a special role in fulfilling the vision of SDG-5 for gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Corporate policies and practices have tremendous potential to create a significant spur in decent jobs and equal prospects for women. For this reason, the SDGs recognise businesses as major players in influencing inclusive and sustainable development.

At the same time, businesses have realised that acting for gender equality is not just the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do. The Boston Consulting Group described the women’s market as ‘the most important commercial opportunity in our lifetime’. There is ample evidence supporting the business case for promoting gender equality.

A McKinsey study shows that companies with gender diversity are 21 per cent more likely to outperform their competitors on profitability. The UN Women India study indicates that women are the fastest growing consumer economy and by 2028, women will control close to 75 per cent of discretionary spending worldwide.

  • Although numbers are increasing, in India, women accounted for just 16.3 per cent of the new board appointments in 2020, as compared to about 30 per cent new board appointees globally

The income of an average Indian woman is below 20.7 per cent of that of an average man, according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report for 2021. Gender bias and discrimination continue to pervade workplaces, hampering women’s prospects for leadership positions, promotion, and career growth. Therefore, if we are to release the economic dividend that women at work can bring to economies around the world, we need a holistic value chain approach to women’s economic empowerment.

This means taking action to advance women’s economic opportunities within the company into the marketplace and through to the wider community and society. There are ample examples of such leadership by India Inc. Some companies have started to offer gender-neutral parental leave and benefits, which encourages fathers to take on a greater share of care responsibilities in the household. Others have sought to nurture diversity and address the pay gap. 

Others in the community have scaled efforts for social and financial inclusion. For instance, RBS Foundation India through its Supporting Enterprise programme works for the uplift of women and their families in rural areas in over eight states. Through self-help groups, they empowered 20,000 rural women to successfully lead various village-level enterprises, including dairy business, sericulture, agri-business, spices and honey production and micro-finance.

Capgemini India provides digital education to rural women who are often restricted to their homes owing to social norms. Using the power of technology, they equip women with employable skills, opening career options in the IT sector for them. IKEA India has committed to equal pay within its organization, where over 40 per cent of the employees are women. At the factory level, women workers have been made aware of their legal rights and access to remedy for workplace grievances. For instance, the clothing company Very Group created awareness of ethical employment practices in its textile unit in Tamil Nadu and has established a grievance redressal mechanism for its workers, thus enabling their voice.

These are just some of the many inspiring initiatives undertaken by companies across the country today. The path taken by them shows their commitment to drive gender equality through all levels of their organisation. However, several challenges remain.

The first challenge is that companies still lack a comprehensive picture of where they stand on their journey to gender equality. Over 5,600 companies globally have realised this and have signed the UN Global Compact and UN Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) and are implementing them. The WEPs are a set of seven principles, which holistically address key issues in the workplace such as women’s leadership, pay equity, gender-responsive supply chain practices and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Implementing the WEPs can highlight hitherto underexplored areas for improving gender equality. For instance, an oft-neglected dimension of women’s empowerment is procuring from women MSMEs. The tools offered by UN Global Compact and UN Women can allow companies to understand these gaps and take corrective action in a targeted and measurable way.

  • Governments have a critical role to play in setting an enabling environment for women’s economic empowerment

Second, CSR needs to be viewed beyond strategic philanthropy and utilised for value creation through conscious and considerable investments towards promoting gender equality. In 2019-20, out of the total CSR spend of Rs24,689 crore,Rs688 crore went towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, which is a mere 2.78 per cent. Stepping up strategic investments in women’s empowerment is a win-win for communities and businesses. 

Third, companies need to be prepared to report on their progress publicly. Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency in corporate practices. This requires that companies set clear targets and collect gender-specific data to track progress. 

Fourth, inaction can be costly. Research by PwC shows that millennial women actively seek out companies that have strong records on diversity and inclusion. A Deloitte study shows that Gen Z, the first generation of consumers, who have not known a world without the internet, are less loyal to brands and extremely sensitive to the portrayal of gender stereotypes in marketing and advertising.

Further, Covid-19 has highlighted the need for urgent action. The pandemic and its necessary preventive measures are driving a disproportionate increase in women’s unemployment (compared to men), decreasing their overall working time, while they are dealing with an aggravated care burden.

We all stand to benefit, if women are able to enter and stay in the workforce. Business can invest in developing women leaders, building gender-equal workplaces, eliminating the pay gap, engaging more women suppliers in their value chains, setting clear targets and reporting on them. India Inc’s efforts will be crucial in our movement towards a gender-equal India and greater economic development for all. 

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