When an autorickshaw driver’s daughter wins the runner’s-up crown in the Miss India contest or a tailor’s daughter tops the charted accountancy (CA) intermediate exam in the country, they do not just make news headlines, but create a new set of role models for scores of young girls who are struggling to achieve their dreams.

It was incongruous to see the beautiful and confident Manya Singh, whose migrant family from UP struggled to make ends meet, walk the ramp with aplomb and a self-confidence which is often only limited to middle- or upper-class women in the country where class and caste divisions run deep.

Manya, soon after her win, declared on Instagram “I have spent many nights without food and sleep. I walked for many afternoons on foot. My blood, sweat and tears became food for my soul and I dared to dream. Being the daughter of a rickshaw driver, I never had the opportunity to go to school because I had to start working in my teens.” Her world has changed considerably and now she proudly flaunts her family at public events and TV shows.

Zarin Khan, who topped the difficult and coveted CA exam this year, lives with her six-member family in a 300 sq ft home in Mumbai. She is the first person in her family to pursue a professional course. Her father has only studied till class 9 and is a tailor. She could only study during night time as there was no space or quiet during the day. Zarin’s beautiful face lit up many a heart when her picture appeared in the newspapers.

Both these girls made front page news. Not simply because of their incredible achievements but because being a woman it must have been even harder to do so.

Less than a quarter of women aged 15 and older participate in the labour force

Impact of gender

LinkedIn, the professional networking platform has released a new report this week which says that as many as 85 per cent women in India have missed out on a raise, promotion or other work offers because of their gender. This is significantly higher than the regional average of 60 per cent in Asia Pacific. ‘The Opportunity Index 2021’ report says “More women in India have experienced the impact of gender on career development when compared to the APAC region”.

“While 66 per cent of the people in India feel that gender equality has improved compared to their parents’ age, India’s working women still contend the strongest gender bias across Asia Pacific countries,” it said. The online survey was conducted among 18- to 65-year-olds and covered 2,285 respondents in India, 1,223 of whom were males and 1,053 were females.

This new finding is revealing but hardly startling. India has amongst the lowest rates of female labour force participation globally, with only parts of the Arab world being lower. According to data from the International Labour Organisation, India has only 20.3 per cent female labour force.

The sad part is that this low figure of women in employment is as its lowest since independence. While the country may have made great strides in the economy, the women have been left behind.

Experts say that it is due in part to restrictive cultural norms regarding women’s work, the gender wage gap, an increase in time spent for women continuing their education, and a lack of safety policies and flexible work offerings. Recent job stagnation and high unemployment rates for women, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, also keep women out of the labor force.

Catalyst, a global non-profit for workplace inclusion, goes on to say that women are under represented across sectors, including: core, which encompasses infrastructure-related sectors like oil and gas (7 per cent); automotive (10 per cent); pharmaceutical and healthcare (11 per cent); and information technology (28 per cent). They also say only 3.7 per cent of CEOs and Managing Directors of NSE-listed companies were women in 2019.

Crime against women continues unabated

The debate about the fall in women’s labour force participation in India loses tempo as news of heinous crimes against women lands daily in our in boxes. It isn’t the sexual violence alone, it is the horrific, sadistic nature of it, that should be the cause of severe alarm.

According to the annual data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) last year, crimes against women increased 7.3 per cent. Every 16 minutes, a woman is raped somewhere in India, and every four minutes a woman experiences cruelty at the hands of her in-laws.

The report said that in 2019, the country had recorded 88 rape cases every day. Of the total 32,033 reported rape cases in the year, 11 per cent were from the Dalit community. Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number of crimes against women and it has seen a 66 per cent rise in the last four years.

With unfair work environments, low job opportunities and an increasingly unsafe society, it is a tough country to rise from adversity and make a mark. That is why the success stories of Manya and Zarin are even more poignant and relevant. They are a beacon of hope and the much-needed role models for many others who are still fighting against relentless odds.

Vineeta Dwivedi teaches business communication at Bhavan’s SP Jain Institute of Management. and Research