Demographics & Culture
The growing equality for women in India
Anirudha Dutta

As a research analyst in India, I’ve spent many years observing the economic and cultural transformation sweeping the world’s second-most-populous country. In visits to both large cities and small towns, I’ve been especially struck by the changes affecting women. In some ways, women are held back by decades-long discrimination that has limited their educational and professional opportunities. However, a once-in-a-lifetime shift is under way as India becomes an ever-larger presence in the global economy. Women are steadily gaining access to education and to jobs in coveted fields such as finance and technology. I expect these changes to accelerate rapidly over the next decade and beyond, giving women a pivotal role in the growth of India and its economy.

In addition to improving the quality of life for millions of women, this evolution will bring significant investment opportunities across a range of sectors. As women enter the workforce, household income will grow and consumption patterns will change. This is a trend we have seen in many other countries. For example, demand for quality health care will rise as families have greater financial wherewithal to afford it. Likewise, the need for financial services will expand as higher-earning women seek credit cards, savings accounts and personal loans. Travel and tourism will grow as disposable income rises. The same is true for products that can save time or bring small luxuries to suddenly time-pressed families. Thus, I expect demand to be strong for packaged foods, beauty products, apparel and childcare facilities.

The emergence of women is significant in part because of the sheer size of the population. India is home to 586 million women, or slightly more than 17% of the global total. India has 173 million girls below the age of 15, about one-fifth of the worldwide total. Some studies estimate that if women were to achieve the same workforce participation rate as men, the country’s gross domestic product could rise by as much as 27%.

Progress toward equality will be gradual as obstacles are overcome.

Of course, all this progress will not come overnight. Throughout India’s history, the status of women in society has been mixed. In some ways, girls and women have held eminent positions of power, both in mythology and real life. For example, the mythological gods of learning, wealth and power are all women. Indian mythology is replete with references to princesses and queens who embodied valor, bravery and wisdom.

In real life, India has produced some of the world’s most powerful female political leaders, most notably Indira Gandhi. The same is true in the corporate world. In recent years, many of the largest financial institutions, both in the private and public sectors, have been led by female CEOs, a record that is globally unprecedented. None of these women inherited their positions through nepotism or societal connections. Instead, they all climbed the corporate ladder in an industry that is dominated by alpha males.

However, women still face hardships in everyday life. For example, female participation in the workforce is only 29%. That compares with 51% for women worldwide and 81% for Indian men. The literacy rate for Indian women is only 66%, versus 82% for men. The adverse gender ratio stems partially from centuries-old customs, including mistaken beliefs about the costs of bringing up a daughter. Though illegal, the practice of a bride’s family paying a dowry to the groom or his parents remains widespread. For poor families, such expenses can be financially crippling. Similarly, many families cling to the erroneous belief that sons alone will take care of their parents in old age because daughters’ attention will shift after they marry and have their own children. Hence, parents stretch to give their sons the best possible education, in hopes of boosting their earning potential.

Women’s lives are getting better as attitudes change and educational opportunities improve.

Fortunately, many of these backward attitudes are breaking down for good. In fact, we are on the cusp of a generational shift in the perception and treatment of women of India. Steadily increasing access to education is helping women gain newfound power and respect. Undoubtedly, education will be the single biggest driver of change for girls and women over the next decade, helping to narrow and eventually eliminate the gender gaps in literacy and workplace participation.

Education is doing more than opening new career choices. It’s also giving women greater insight into the world at large, making them aware of their rights and steeling them with the courage to stand up for themselves. These long-overdue forces are slowly giving women near, if not fully, equal opportunities. For example, women are landing more jobs than ever in white-collar managerial and technical positions. It’s clear that girls and young women today are far more informed and confident than were their mothers. Most encouraging, these patterns extend beyond people who live in large cities or were born into affluent families. Increasingly, they’re becoming prevalent across society.

The more I travel across the country and interview people from all walks of life, the more convinced I am that a monumental change is under way. The role of women in Indian society has been evolving over many years, but the pace of change has accelerated noticeably. Over the next decade, it will vastly improve the lives of millions and have profound economic and investment effects. 

This article is adapted from Dutta’s recent book, Half a Billion Rising: The Emergence of the Indian Woman, which examines the progress of women in India.

Anirudha Dutta is an economist with 30 years of industry experience (as of 12/31/20). He holds a postgraduate diploma in business management from the Xavier School of Management and a bachelor’s degree with honors in metallurgical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. 

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