From the C-suite to the bottom of the pyramid, women are vanishing from India’s economic landscape

Money Control, June 28, 2024

There is a lot of talk on women’s empowerment and how their participation in all parts of the economy needs to increase. Unfortunately, the numbers show nobody is walking the talk.

A 2022 study by Institutional Investor Advisory Services, women accounted for 18 per cent of directors in India’s top 500 corporations which form the Nifty 500 Index

In 1951, there were 22 women Members of Parliament in Independent India’s first Lok Sabha. Despite 75 years of alleged pro-women policies pursued by all political parties since then, this number has risen to just 74 in the 18th Lok Sabha, which was elected in May 2024. This means that in the 17 general elections which have followed since the first, the number of women MPs has gone up by an average of just three MPs every election – despite women accounting for nearly half the electorate (48.7 per cent in 2024). This, despite India having had a woman Prime Minister and two women Presidents, including the current one.

Fewer women voted in the 2024 elections than in the 2019. This may or may not have a correlation with the number of women MPs elected but all major political parties, with the exception of the woman-led All India Trinamool Congress put up fewer women candidates. The TMC, in fact, has the highest percentage of women MPs (34 per cent) than all other major political parties.

The polling booth and Parliament aren’t the only places that women have been disappearing from. From the corner offices of India’s biggest and richest corporations to the bottom-of-the-pyramid labour force, India’s women have been steadily losing numbers – and agency. This trend has actually accelerated over the past decade or so, at a time when India’s overall economic growth has accelerated and India – in per capita GDP at least – is now a middle-income country.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2024, India is among the world’s worst-performing countries when it comes to gender parity, ranking 127th out of 146 countries covered by the report. Even in South Asia, it ranks third to last.

India’s ranking is even worse when it comes to the pillar of “economic participation and opportunity”, where it is ranked 4th from the bottom. Within this pillar, among the sub-indicators, India ranks 139th on the Female Labour Force Participation Rate, 141 on estimated income earned by women, and 116 on wage equality for similar work.

Although India is ranked a very high 26th in educational attainment – India is one of the very few countries in the world with a higher percentage of women graduates than men – it slips sharply in the “Health and Survival” pillar, ranking 142nd, or fourth from the bottom.

Much has been said about India’s Female Labour Force Participation rate. At a little over 35 per cent, it is among the lowest in the world. Compare this to China’s 61.6 per cent. Even this is because of the rise in disguised unemployment or unpaid labour in family business.

This dismal picture hardly changes even if we go all the way to the other end of the spectrum – to the poster boys of the India Growth Story, the IT/ITeS sector. According to a 2019 study by Deepanshu Mohand of Jindal Global University and S Manivannan of the Centre for Human Rights Studies, women accounted for just 31 per cent of the workforce in the IT/ITeS sector.

Peep into the corner offices of India’s biggest and most powerful companies and the position of women becomes starker. A 2022 study by Institutional Investor Advisory Services, women accounted for 18 per cent of directors in India’s top 500 corporations which form the Nifty 500 Index.

A more granular study by Parvathi Benu in The Hindu Businessline shows that 27 of the top 500 Indian corporates by market capitalisation were led by women. Of these, only four had more than one woman managing director or CEO (some companies have multiple people having this designation or jointly sharing it). In all four cases, the women were there by virtue of ownership or inheritance. Worse, the report states, “Section 2(51) of the Companies Act defines Key Managerial Personnel (KMP), as either a Chief Executive Officer, manager, Managing Director, Company secretary or Whole-Time Director. However, 319 Nifty500 companies do not have any female KMP.”

Even these numbers may be driven more by compliance requirements rather than positive discrimination. According to the Companies Act 2013, every listed company, every other public company with either a paid-up share capital of Rs 1 billion or more, or a turnover of Rs 3 billion or more needs to have at least one woman director. In 2023, 223 companies out of the Nifty500 – or almost half — had only one woman director, the minimum stipulated by law.

What can be done to change this abject picture? Legislative action can only take you so far. We already have a law reserving one-third of seats in Parliament for women (implementation is frozen till the next delimitation exercise though). 21 states and two union territories already have 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayats. But as the 2024 elections show, this has led to little impact on the political agency enjoyed by women.

Ditto on the economic front, where we have laws against gender discrimination in work or compensation. But far from improving the situation, the position of women in the Indian economy has actually worsened. Even when it comes to India’s biggest and most powerful companies, it continues to be very much a man’s world.

For the situation to change in actuality, all principal stakeholders have to start walking their noble talk. Political parties have to stop looking at women only as voters and start looking at them as leaders. So does India Inc..

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