Focusing on improving the female economy, and not the heteronormative economy, should be the way forward for India for it will release productivity with relatively less effort
BY SHINJINI KUMAR
Let’s do a thought experiment. Just assume there are enough frozen embryos to keep the civilisation going. Now imagine that all men disappear. What do you see happening? The humans left behind, the women, STORY are suddenly looking at many job openings including CXO positions. Properties, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, crypto, NFT, all wait for new owners. Publishers and art galleries have space to publish and show works by the leftover humans.
Now imagine a world where all women disappear. Men have to start taking care of homes and there is no extra pay for it. There are some extra jobs available, but they mostly don’t pay much. It’s possibly a bit more peaceful without the complaints and protests, but overall, the world is not looking at much economic opportunity, right?
I am not inviting you to be a misogynist or misandrist, but making a point about where the potential for growth lies. Cranking up the heteronormative economy (or the economy, as it exists) will take incrementally greater efforts to make incrementally lower gains. On the other hand, cranking up the female economy will release productivity with relatively less effort, at least for the foreseeable future. Nowhere in the world is this more true than in India today. It seems to be India’s time in many ways and there is a clear opportunity to direct capital and policy towards bets that will deliver the goal of a $5 trillion economy.
Let’s zoom in on the paradox — high participation by women in STEM and higher education, combined with one of the lowest female workforce participation rates on the planet. In summary, women contribute 18 percent GDP while maintaining a lead over the developed countries with 29 percent STEM and 51 percent postgraduate participation. Women seem to be part of some bizarre Squid Games, where they keep disappearing, even as equal opportunities seem within reach.
At a high level, this is not so different from the experience of other countries. As households become wealthier, women tend to drop out of the workforce because they can now afford to stay home and take care of children/elders. However, this decline typically reverses itself as women’s education becomes more pervasive and women want to work, even if they do not necessarily need to work. In India, we seem to be hurtling towards this decline with no signs of reversal. There are multiple factors at play. Most are well recognised. These include the simultaneous breakdown of family and lack of reliable care facilities with much slower onset of modern values such as men sharing care and household work.
Culture is an important piece of this sad, unfixable puzzle. WhatsApp chats and stand-up comedy shows have disgusting jokes about men washing dishes, serving food or giving a back rub to their tired wives! The cultural poverty in this regard is particularly astonishing in the Indian upper class that sets the aspiration for the classes that look up to them. So, if a driver were to be pragmatic and have his wife work as a nanny to supplement family income, his aspiration would still be to earn a little more and keep his wife at home. This is not just coming from experience of an unsafe workplace, which was possibly the original reason for many men wanting to keep women at home. Because there is not a huge regional variance in this aspiration, even though safety conditions change significantly across the country.
So, what can be done to help break this evil game and its grip on our female workforce?
Recognise housework as paid work. In households below a certain level of household income, the woman should be paid something like a basic income. Let’s call this WBI (Women’s Basic Income). This will also create the opportunity for some of these women to pay for care work and find better paid work for themselves.
Standard setting authority for childcare and elder care. This has become a chicken and egg situation. Because good quality child and elder care are not available, many women stay at home, and because most women do it themselves, the infrastructure has not grown in a consistent manner.
Remote work is possibly the most powerful enabler of female workforce participation. It is not hard to see how it liberates women and creates viable choices.
Promoting entrepreneurship among women. Working women do have some privileges like maternity leave or creche facilities. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are on their own. Allow them to deduct childcare as a business expense. Come on, we live in a country where wedding gifts are tax-free but you are telling me that we cannot get tax credits for elder care and childcare.
It is a well-known fact that women face more familial hurdles in their entrepreneurial journeys. Even small financial assistance from the government at the initial stages helps them to tide over the negativity and gives them confidence.
Returning women. There is a clear opportunity to creatively think about women and work. This includes short tenure jobs with benefits (why five continuous years for provident fund to be tax-free?), etc. With the dramatic shift in nature of work, benefits and financial products need to offer more flexible choices.
Women don’t migrate. While men migrate wherever opportunities take them, women typically stay within the Lakshman Rekha. Use the power of this relatively stable population for local self-government, panchayat-level skill development, postal work and similar flexible work. This is already happening and can be scaled.
It is time to move beyond data, research and chest beating about societal and cultural norms and simply reckon the stupidity of underutilising the most abundant resource available to this country. Looking for the animal spirit? Unleash the tigress…
(The writer is co-founder of SALT-mysaltapp, a women-first platform to track, save, invest. Besides, she has spent three decades in leadership roles in financial services.)
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