India's bias against women in workplace saps economic growth

Hari Kumar says barring women from full participation in India's workforce is depriving the country's economy of its true growth potential

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 2:46am

The gang rape of a photo journalist in Mumbai has again brought the state of women in India into focus amid the clamour for more punitive action. After the mass protest against a similar incident in New Delhi last year, new laws were enacted against sexual harassment and rape. But, as the new case indicates, stricter and more stringent laws are not much help in a society where the chauvinistic attitudes of men remain deep-rooted and even sanctioned in the name of tradition.

Women's role is confined to a secondary one - in the home and outside it - even among the educated sections of society, and the jobs they can aspire to are limited to a few sectors.

But, with a rising urban middle class and a new generation seeking better choices, women are beginning to breach these boundaries. In this way, they find themselves at risk and in conflict with the old order of male chauvinism.

In rural areas, women continue to live under the thumb of the men around them. Away from the glare of the mass media and social media, their struggles hardly ever reach the limelight.

Even in urban areas, the freedom to make decisions about their life - be it marriage, a job or even what they wear - are controlled by the male-dominated society, which justifies this in the name of tradition, often tinged with religious hues.

While debates about these problems focus mainly on the status of women in society, very little emphasis is placed on the economic impact of this misogyny.

India often gets compared to China in its economic growth, but the vast difference between the two countries in the make-up of their respective workforces is seldom evaluated.

Women make up a mere 24 per cent of India's workforce, estimated to be around 480 million. In China, 70 per cent of the women are part of the labour force.

The majority of Indian women are still employed in the agricultural and construction sectors and, even there, the wage structure tends to favour men.

Job opportunities for women have not increased despite the economic boom, as large swathes of the economy are deemed unsuitable. Brought up through a rigid, male-dominated structure, they also end up losing confidence and the ability to take up jobs which are not confined to the safety of an office, or involve irregular hours.

Even worse, they run the risk of being targets of character assassination and harassment if they venture outside these limits.

From "mom and pop" shops to small-scale industries and corporate boards, women play an active role in China. But, in India, such opportunities remain limited.

In a paper presented in 2011 by Lakshmi Puri, assistant secretary general of UN Women, it was calculated that India 's growth rate could increase by a further 4.2 per cent a year if women were given more opportunities. But society's attitude continues to exclude that half of the population from economic activities.

Unless India breaks these chains that bind its women, the country is not going to realise its full potential, even when boasting of impressive economic gains.

Hari Kumar is a Post journalist