Don’t Change the Women, Change the World

(This is a personal blog. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

On 24 October 2018, women all over Iceland walked out of work at 2:55 PM. Both the date and the time carry immense significance. The specific time indicates the gender wage gap: the average wages of Icelandic women are 74 percent of the average wages of men, meaning in effect, they stop getting paid after 2:55 PM on a given workday.

As for the date, it is a throwback to the historic day in 1975, when Icelandic women went on strike for the day to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society”, and protest against not only the remuneration gap but also various unfair employment practices.

An Inclusive #MeToo

90 percent of the female population took part, including those from the rural areas. Not only did women who worked outside their homes strike for the day, women across Iceland refrained from any housework or child-rearing activities. The 1975 March had many historic ramifications, and Iceland has gone on to become one of the best places in the world to be a woman.

In January 2018, a law was put in place requiring workplaces with 25 or more employees,to incorporate an equal pay standard by the end of the year, or face stringent fines.

However, depending on the number of employees, the law will take three years or more to fully come into effect. Various other forms of systemic as well as informal forms of gender discrimination continue to persist. Apart from protesting the gender wage gap, this year’s march is also protesting against all forms of violence against women, including workplace harassment.

There is also a special emphasis on including immigrant women and those from the rural areas is this year’s movement.

Especially in the backdrop of the global #Metoo movement, this comes as a particularly compelling moment of female solidarity.

India’s Dismal Economic Empowerment Record

Since 2006, the World Economic Forum (“WEF”) has been publishing a Gender Gap Index which measures the gender gap in the areas of health, economy, education, and politics and subsequently ranks countries based on performance. The report ranks countries according to gender gaps, rather than absolute levels. Unsurprisingly, Iceland has near consistently maintained the top spot in the rankings, including in the latest report which was released in November 2017.

Equally unsurprisingly and dishearteningly, India’s performance has been dismal. With an overall ranking of 108, India’s ranking was 139 in economic empowerment, 112 in educational attainment, 141 in health and survival, and 15 in political participation.

What is all the more disturbing is that India’s ranking fell 21 places from 2016’s ranking of 87. This has been largely attributed to Indian women’s low participation in the workforce and the prevailing low wages.

India’s rank in terms of economic empowerment is a dismal 139 out of 144 countries. The only countries which have performed worse than India on this front are Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabi, and Syria. In stark contrast to India, Bangladesh presents a much more promising picture of closing in on its gender gap. Ranked 47th overall, it is the 2nd most gender equal country in Asia (after Philippines), having made significant inroads in increasing the number of women legislators, as well as women involved in other technical professions.

Workplace Participation Gap

Significantly, as is evidenced by the top performers as per the report, economic progress participation has been one of the key factors responsible for narrowing the gender gap. The metric for economic empowerment and opportunity include the labour participation gap, the remuneration gap, and the advancement gap. The questions asked were whether the law demands equal remuneration for equal work, assessed the ability of women to rise to positions of leadership, calculated the share of women on boards of listed companies, recorded the presence of women in the workforce (both as principal owners, and the workforce).

The survey also assessed women’s access to financial institutions, and the overall financial system and recorded issues such as the percentage of women with an account in a financial institution, inheritance rights for daughters, women’s inheritance and land usage rights, and mean monthly earnings.

The remuneration gap was calculated on both hard data as well as a qualitative indicator through the WEF’s annual survey. The participation gap was calculated on the basis of ratio of men to women among legislators, senior officers and managers as well as the similar ratio among technical and professional workers.

A Woman’s Burden to Carry

While the gender pay gap is a cause of concern in India, as elsewhere in the world, the stark lack of women in the workforce is nothing short of alarming. As per a 2018 World Bank report, India ranked a measly 120 among 131 nations in terms of female participation in the workforce. The same report asserted that about 20 million women (the size of the combined populations of New York, London and Paris) vanished from India’s workforce from 2004 to 2012.

Indian women’s participation in the workforce (27 percent) is much closer to the Arab world (23.3 percent) than its neighbours Nepal (79.9 percent) and China (63.9 percent). Inhospitable work conditions (including, but not limited to, sexual harassment at the workplace), concerns of safety surrounding a lack of safe, reliable and affordable transport options, non-existent/inadequate maternity support and childcare facilities – are only some of the factors to blame.

Stubborn socio-cultural norms, and the fact that the burden of children and caring for the elderly, and household work is still overwhelmingly shouldered by women, is another reason responsible for women dropping out of the workforce.

Bridging the Gender Gap at Work

Aside from a tremendous social cost, these figures have tangible negative repercussions for India’s economy. Research in this area has strongly corroborated a positive relationship between greater gender parity and national income. Indian women only contribute 17 percent to the GDP, which is less than half the global average.

India’s GDP could be boosted by as much as 1.5 points if even half of the women could join the formal workforce.

It would not be an understatement to say that one of the best indicators of the status of women in a given society is their economic empowerment as well as their access to the overall financial sector.

In the same breath, one of the most effective agents of ensuring gender parity lies in increasing the access of women to the financial sector and enabling them to empower themselves economically.

Beyond Mere Tokenism

In a rapidly changing and increasingly inter-connected world, issues like gender equality and diversity are not just matters of fairness and equality, they are also intrinsically tied to the success of businesses and ultimately, the national economy. While regulatory and policy interventions can serve as enablers to set the course straight, it is important that they are not reduced to mere tokenism.

Despite a legal requirement to appoint at least one woman on the board of directors of listed companies in India, compliance has been reluctant and often perfunctory. Economic empowerment and gender parity are not just tools of economic independence, but also of realising one’s full potential, an inalienable human right.

Don’t change women, change the world” was this year’s rallying cry in the Icelandic women’s march. Indeed, it is time to rethink the world of “women’s” rights. It is not just the progress of a particular gender which is at stake, but the progress of our society as a whole.

(The author is a lawyer and public policy professional.)

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