Business Week recently wrote a great article title “India’s Economy Lags as Its Women Lack Opportunity.” There is a lot of work in the economic development literature about the feminization of international trade, where many of the new and growing jobs in the international trade-based economy are designed for women or for feminine job characteristics (such as part-time or flexible work, regardless or whether women actually prefer this type of work, but most of this type of work ends up being done by women). According to the World Bank, India’s women’s labor participation rate was 29% in 2010, which is way low compared to China at 68%, to which India is often compared. (We will save discussions of whether women’s labor participation rates are accurate for another time – work done inside the home, etc.) The article goes on to say, I believe rightly, that not empowering women will hold India back from economic robustness and becoming a world power. Disadvantaging half your population and constraining their ability to participate and be productive is not a good development strategy.
But in India, as in a lot of places, this will require a huge cultural overhaul. The Guadian points to the need for businesses in particular to change their workplaces to accommodate women workers, with measures from providing free childcare during school holidays to marketing campaigns directed at husbands and in-laws to persuade them to let women continue to work after they have children. Although the Guardian writes that addressing the cultural biases against women’s work isn’t solely the responsibility of the government, I think they should give more credit to the ability of the government to encourage business to take measures like this, and perhaps, gasp, even legislate some of these types of measures that make it easier for women to work and maintain a family (family medical leave, anyone?). It should be noted that most of the examples of benevolent businesses (with some exceptions) are international companies that are headquartered in countries with much more progressive gender equality legislation.
A culture that disadvantages women workers will lead to an economy that will be held back. Cultural and economic empowerment of women can lead to conditions of robust economic growth and power in the world economy. And the bonus is that women will actually, maybe, get their fair share in the growth process.