The 2020s have challenged us in ways we could not have imagined. Fortunately, India is entering a period of swift recovery with a growth forecast at 9.5% this year. Unlocking women’s participation in the economy will reap benefits for women, and for all.
The global pandemic is not only a health crisis – it uncovered the crisis of gender equality across the world. The Indian government responded to this immediately. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced ‘women-led development’ demonstrating that women are the key to achieving transformational economic development. The Union Government announced one of the world’s largest economic stimulus packages — $260 billion, amounting to 9.8 percent of India’s gross domestic product, to build back a better India. This, and other schemes, provided life-saving support to millions of women, and men, across the country.
In the longer term, the rates of female labor force participation will need to be reversed. The rates were declining pre-pandemic, and this accelerated during the pandemic. In 2019, it was 22% and in 2020 it was 20%. During the first lockdown in March 2020, around 47% of women lost their jobs, compared to 7% of men.
What does this global gender gap point to? Not just that women were more prone to losing their jobs during crises, but also that they were perhaps willingly falling off the workforce to balance the increased workload that the pandemic imposed on them.
If this trend is reversed, it will prove hugely beneficial to the Indian economy. The potential dividends of achieving gender parity in the workforce will allow an almost 27% increase in India’s GDP.
The Union Government recently announced its Budget. It includes a range of initiatives that will guide specific investments in women’s economic participation. Inclusive, women-led development remains a priority, along with connectivity, jobs through infrastructure, energy, and financing.
We must all back these initiatives and work together to prioritize India’s goals to bring women back into the workforce. Our goal should be securing decent work opportunities for women. The corporate sector can lead by example — opening up supply chains to women’s businesses and making workplaces safe and responsive to their needs through provision for care work, paid-leave, flexi-time, and work-from-home opportunities.
It is imperative to value women’s unpaid care work that keeps the whole economy running. A study of six countries (including India) found that if unpaid labor carried out by women were to be assigned a monetary value, it would make up around 10-39% of the GDP.
Ensuring women’s economic empowerment across the world remains an uphill struggle and the pandemic has only made things harder. But it has also led to policy and practice innovations such as much greater use of the digital economy and flexible work arrangements that work for women. Unlocking the ‘women’s dividend’ for the economy is good for women. It’s good for everyone.