The 2021 WEF Global Gender Gap Report is damning for India, and gender parity advocates in general. Since its first dip in rate of progress in 2016, this is a repeat, predictably because the pandemic has affected more women than men.

What can one expect when “the structures of our society have been created by males and for males,” as commented by none other than the Supreme Court of India recently? India has slipped from 112 to 140 amongst 156 countries, with only Pakistan and Afghanistan behind it in Asia.

Of the four pillars of the index, India suffered mainly in political empowerment and economic participation (the other two being education attainment and health). Not quite surprising when the labour participation of women is 22 per cent, one of the lowest in the world (comparable countries have 50 per cent).

The global GDP could rise by as much as $28 trillion by 2025 if, for instance, women play an equal role to men in labour markets. If small, medium and large businesses — both domestic and MNCs — join hands with the government to close the gender gap in economic empowerment, India could add at least a trillion annually to its GDP by 2029. It makes an equally sound business case too: Companies with more women representation have achieved 22 per cent higher productivity, 40 per cent better customer retention and 27 per cent more profitability.

More attention is needed now at the rural and urban bottom of the pyramid population. Giving due recognition to the informal and vulnerable sections of the labour market, and investing in making changes for the women workforce, will be a good first step. Equally key is the policies for sectors where women participation can be significant, both in current (healthcare, IT, education, agriculture) and emerging (artificial intelligence, blockchain) areas.

Educational attainment and economic participation are closely linked and the gender gap issue in India is stark here. The big drop in enrolment of girls in primary (93 per cent), secondary (62 per cent) and tertiary (29 per cent) education is alarming. It is here that Skill India should develop programmes for girls/women and address the systemic and behavioural issues.

In just one year, India fell from 18 to 51 in political empowerment of women, and this despite having a great opportunity to get better women participation in political decision-making. As against a global average of 50 per cent, India has just 12 per cent participation, which clearly is an issue of political will, as local self-government body elections have shown good participation. Remember that women account for half the electorate.

Execution matters

While India has several schemes devised over the last few years — from Skill India, Make in India and Startup India to Atmanirbhar and Beti Padhao — an integrated and aligned approach has been missing in executing them. Besides, it takes two to tango, and business and government should align in driving the gender parity agenda.

Experiences of various countries small and big, and not necessarily from the West, provide a few urgent action points for moving towards the $5-trillion economy.

Notwithstanding any reservation against reservations, an exception has to be made to get the Women’s Reservation Bill 2008 passed in Parliament. Are political leaders (mostly men) so insecure that they don’t want to see a woman in every third seat? Why then promise this in every election manifesto? Even as this is pending, political parties should start nominating women to one-third seats.

Renewed thrust on innovation that focusses on gender-responsive approach to innovation process, promotion of innovations by women, support to innovations for the underprivileged, and so on. Startup India must develop schemes to build an ecosystem for women entrepreneurs to thrive. Encourage public-private partnerships in this area and also recognise businesses that contribute to the national gender parity goals.

Implement the numerous schemes announced in true spirit. Spend the allocated budgets fully and hold district collectors accountable with metrics similar to Aspiring Districts initiative, to start with. (The Nirbhaya fund was seriously under-utilised.) Perhaps, it is time to upgrade “Beti-Bachao-Beti-Padhao” to “Beti-Padhao-Beti-Kamao”?

Create an independent authority like the UIDAI for gender parity that can be the nodal agency for scaling-up at district levels with clear objectives, metrics, targets and good governance. It can address a multitude of areas like education, skilling, safety, transparency in informal sector labour participation, wage parity, and women business opportunities.

Data has continuously supported the fact that women with support of financial literacy are more disciplined in repayment of their micro-loans. Perhaps India Post could replace the profiteering micro-finance and provide better credit to women entrepreneurs.

On their part, enterprises must embrace the government initiatives and the onus of driving gender equality in business lies with the CEO, who can:

Embrace policies for inclusion that help women progress in career, with up-skilling and “return-to-career” schemes, flexi-work, special leave, wage parity, hybrid working models, and so on. Many global companies, including Unilever and Cisco, have shown the impact of such initiatives on their performance.

A concerted effort across key sectors with a cultural focus on gender sensitivity instead of gender neutrality can help. Every organisation should establish and track pre-decided common metrics derived from the national priorities. For example, start with four major metrics such as percentage of women in leadership positions, diversity ratio adherence, pay parity and culture adherence.

Channel the CSR funds more strategically towards localised women community engagement and skilling. This could be in partnership with district administrations. Increasing number of companies have their own trusts where the CSR funds get diverted to promoters and others instead of going into actual CSR work. Lobby the government to add women-specific work as a key CSR focus this year.

Influence policy-makers for gender equality policies. Embrace healthy public-private partnerships to support women in business and bring tech to aid innovative processes, solutions and products to enhance their economic participation. Introduction of digital tech has helped small women farmers tremendously.

Closing the gender gap will take 100 years at the current rate but will need urgent focus and clear accountability. Both government and business owe it to the “other (better) half” for their contribution towards the $5 trillion economy mission. The answer lies in execution.

Muneer is co-founder of Medici Institute, and Chitra is a senior corporate advisor