In India, women constitute 46.2 percent of the total enrolment in higher education but the female labour force participation rate is a mere 21 percent, as against a global average of 40 per cent. In fact, not only is the number very low, but for those who do join the workforce, there exists a gap in the pay of men and women, and the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ has resulted, on an average across sectors, in only about 8 per cent women being in senior positions in India.
The reasons for the low rate of participation are manifold – ranging from socio-cultural norms, economic factors, convenience, lack of family support, lack of adequate job opportunities etc. but the crux of the matter is that higher levels of education have sadly not resulted in higher workforce participation, especially in better levels of jobs – in fact rather the reverse in recent years, with the female labour force participation rates (FLFPR) actually dropping in India from 31.8 per cent in 2005 to 20.3 per cent in 2020, according to the World Bank.
The World Economic Forum in its Global Gender Gap Report 2020 placed India at an overall rank # 112 out of 153 nations ranked. The good female enrolments in education ensure that on the ‘Educational Attainment sub-index’ India’s score increased from 0.819 in 2006 to 0.962 in 2020 yet India’s rank on this sub-index was 112, indicating that 111 nations in the survey had still higher attainments levels.
The issue of gender equality and higher education thus needs to be seen from the lens of Universities and public policy, since the purpose of education is also to support gainful employment and to contribute to the national growth and development. While education at the primary level is the focus of debate for those concerned with literacy and human development, higher education is critical for social and occupational mobility. Policy-makers should ensure that women are able to access better jobs or start up a business and take advantage of new labour market opportunities as the country grows. A policy framework encouraging and enabling women’s participation should take into account the gender-specific constraints faced by women, especially in rural India.
A question to ponder is – How can Indian Universities help reduce gender inequality in the workplace? As per the views of Dr Rajini Gupte, Vice-Chancellor, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), the following measures can help.
Further enhance enrolment levels in higher education: The empowerment through education would lead to enhancement of the living standards of women by helping them to enter the workforce as well as take part in governance.
Create a conducive ecosystem: Make it easy for women to seek higher education by providing equal opportunities, testing for multiple skillsets during entrance tests, providing hostels, safety, transport, scholarships etc.
Identify emerging domains and develop female talent pool in the emerging areas: Universities must make special efforts to identify talent-gaps and counsel and train girls for in-demand futuristic skills. Research shows that the jobs that are likely to be lost due to structural changes in the labour markets are low-skill and repetitive jobs often handled by women and the ones that will see a rising demand are jobs in AI, data analytics, cloud computing, digital transformation. There is a dearth of women in these domains – e.g. there are only 12% women in cloud computing; women should be encouraged to take up these subjects.
Lead by example: Demonstrate through action that gender parity can be established, by creating equal opportunities within the University for female staff, providing training and mentorship to potential female leaders, and explicitly and constantly nurturing diversity.
Train women for leadership roles: Training women to take on responsibilities confidently. Train women for leadership roles so that the workplace gets the benefits of diversity. In this context it is interesting that the 2016 ‘CS Gender 3000: The Reward for Change’ report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that companies with a higher proportion of women in decision-making roles generate higher returns on equity while running more conservative balance sheets.
Develop and leverage Industry-Academia connect: The role of Universities should be to study emerging trends and create employable skill-sets, specific to needs of both employers and employees. Universities must ensure through engagement at all levels with the business organisations, that they are sensitised about the gender gaps and the latent female talent pool and the advantages of diversity at the workplace.
Robert Zoellick, the eleventh president of the World Bank, put it very succinctly, “Equality is not just the right thing to do. It’s smart economics. How can an economy achieve full potential if it ignores, side-lines, or fails to invest in half its population?”
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