India’s Women Need To Break Vicious Cycle Of Malnutrition And Poor Education To Escape Poverty


Bringing more women into the workforce will take a systemic change involving a range of efforts, including improved nutrition for mothers and babies, keeping girls in school and bringing dropouts back, and providing vocational training, Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer of NITI Aayog, said in a panel discussion today on India’s Women in the Workforce.

Women’s contribution to GDP in India is 24% as against 48% on average worldwide, Kant said. India’s challenge is huge and multidimensional – children are born into cycles of poor nutrition and education, which they never escape. To break these cycles, India needs targeted policies on improving infant and maternal nutrition, and girls’ and women’s education. The government is pushing through a range of solutions to this end – by ensuring that all direct-benefits transfers are made into the mother’s account, for instance.

At the same time, India displays the paradox of women topping nearly every competitive examination in the country, outnumbering men in the best colleges, including in the STEM fields, and making great strides in sectors such as financial services that are male-dominated in the West. This not only is a result of wide income and wealth disparities – some women from well-off and educated families are able to pursue their studies and careers almost unhindered – but also reflects some happy socio-economic coincidences.

In the financial services sector, for instance, 25 years ago the client base became more women-centric at the same time as global firms entering newly liberalized India offered an attractive mix of maternity leave and flexi-work options. Today, women who entered the sector then are among its most recognizable faces. “Having said that, the financial services sector has its own struggles,” said Manisha Girotra, Chief Executive Officer of Moelis and Company, India. “Other than the top 15-20 women you see, we still struggle to retain women.”

To change this, India needs to change mindsets, Girotra said. Employers must work to help families take pride in a woman’s job, to have male colleagues or seniors take ownership of women’s success, to not “form boys’ clubs at lunch tables” but integrate women and make them part of the team. At the same time, she said, the government must improve law and order to ensure women’s safety.

Kant agreed, pointing out that state governments that are responsible for law and order must step up to this challenge, and adding that state governments’ efforts to help women create self-help groups have enabled millions of women to pull their families above the poverty line across the country. Among the federal government’s efforts, the start-up financing programme MUDRA is issuing over 70% of loans to women entrepreneurs, he said.

The business case for employing more women is clear, Al Rajwani, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Procter & Gamble, India, said – diverse teams deliver better results. With the right government policies, corporates feel comfortable initiating innovative ideas, he said, giving the example of the Swachh Bharat programme that is building toilets everywhere, including the government schools, so Procter & Gamble designed a programme on menstrual health in schools that fits in with its feminine hygiene product range.

There is much that business leaders can do within their organizations – create networks to support, mentor and retain women, let male managers know it is their responsibility to ensure women are well represented, and let it be well-known that there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment, among other things, Rajwani said.

Skilling, upskilling and reskilling women workers is another step businesses can take, said Dipali Goenka, Chief Executive Officer and Joint Managing Director of Welspun India, adding that, in her company’s experience, it has helped reduce attrition rates.

India is very diverse and would need specific, micro-level solutions, although the expanding gig economy is certain to make it easier for more women to work as it will eliminate traditional obstacles such as rigid working hours and safety issues.

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