This article originally appeared on Livemint.
At first glance, the employment gender gap in India appears to have improved over the past 25 years. Enter any large office complex in Gurgaon, Mumbai or Bengaluru, and one sees an encouraging representation of women, which suggests that positive change is indeed taking place in the Indian workplace. One wonders what this scene was like 25 years ago.
Achla Sawhney, who spent 18 years in banking, straddling the pre- and post-liberalization years, provides that perspective. “I never felt any discrimination whatsoever, but yes, the workplace dynamics then—the wining and dining, the networking—were harder for women to balance along with household responsibilities,” she says. Sawhney, who worked as a senior executive in a nationalized bank as well as in a couple of large multi-national banks, adds: “Amongst forex traders in the industry, there were all of two women during most of my tenure. So, there were far fewer women, and rarely was the matter discussed as an organizational priority. Today, there is more ambition and confidence amongst women, perhaps also helped by greater participation of men in household responsibilities, as well as greater organizational focus.”
To the extent that education is an indicator of the increasing role of women in economic growth, we have seen improvement. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) of girls in elementary education has improved dramatically, from 66% in 1991 to 97% in 2014; so too has the GER of girls in higher education, from 7.5% in 2002–03 to close to 20% in 2012–13 (just a shade behind boys at 22%). In fact, women account for 51% of all post-graduates in India today.
Yet, statistics reveal that improvement in education hasn’t chipped away at the gender disparity in employment. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2015 ranked India at 139 out of 145 countries on the economic participation and opportunity gap. India’s overall female labour force participation (FLFP) rate remains low and has, in fact, dropped from 35% in 1991 to 27% in 2014. For comparison, as per World Bank data, the world average is around 50% and South Asia is at 31%. According to a 2015 International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper (Women Workers in India: Why So Few Among So Many?), in urban India, the recent FLFP rate is even lower at less than 20%; within this, segments such as graduates are around 30%, which although higher than the national average, have seen a decline since the 1990s.
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Nikhil Prasad Ojha is a partner with Bain & Co. and the co-editor of the Mint-Bain series on 25 Years of Reforms. Megha Chawla is a partner in the firm and a member of Bain’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications practice in India.