India’s economy could earn an additional $700 billion to $2.9 trillion by 2025 by enabling its women to participate in the economy on par with men – this was estimated by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2015.

But India’s ranking in the recently released World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Index remained stuck on 108th position for the second year in a row, after falling 21 places before that. Worse still, we ranked lower than last year on the ‘Economic Participation of women in the economy’ and ‘Political Empowerment’ parameters.

However, 2019 presents a bunch of opportunities that the government can leverage to improve India’s rankings and bridge some part of the 33 per cent gender gap. It will, however, require raising the political commitment on the issue significantly, building a strong public-private partnership and initiating government actions on a war-footing.

There are three sets of action that can help India improve its scores on gender performance:

Increase women’s representation in Parliament: The upcoming 2019 election is perhaps the only chance in the next five years to improve on India’s score on Political Empowerment, by increasing the proportion of women in Parliament (from 12 per cent at present) and women in ministerial positions (19 per cent). Women legislators are needed not only because they are likely to advocate changes that promote women but as they have also proven to improve the economic performance of their constituencies 1.8 per cent more than male legislatures (UN University).

The best way to achieve this would be if the Women’s Reservation Bill gets passed by the Lok Sabha before the elections. But this being pretty unlikely, the parties can voluntarily reserve quotas for women when drawing up their list of candidates. The parties could either decide to field at least 30-40 per cent women candidates or adopt the 40-60 formula, wherein neither sex comprise less than 40 per cent or more than 60 per cent of candidates given tickets to run in the elections.

Cross-country evidence has shown that such voluntary quotas have proved to be the single most effective tool for ‘fast-tracking’ women’s representation in elected bodies of government (World Atlas of Gender Quotas).

Implement pending policy actions to facilitate women to join the workforce: Several “women-friendly” policy initiatives that are in the draft, Bill or concept stage can get India additional points in the Gender Gap Index, and must be fast-tracked. The Women’s Reservation Bill to increase women in Parliament is one such pending Bill. Secondly, implementing the proposed national programme for crèche and day-care facilities will make subsidised day-care options available to working mothers. Evidence shows that a 50 per cent reduction in the cost of childcare increases the labour supply of young mothers by 6.5-10 per cent (IMF).

Also, paid paternity leave can be mandated by either passing the proposed Paternity Bill or amending the Maternity Act to split the existing 26-week paid maternity leave into maternity and paternity or family leave. This will ensure that women are not the sole “cost-burden” on employers.

The government could also bring in further policy reforms, taking inspiration from recent policy initiatives by other countries — like Malaysia’s tax-incentive given for women re-joining the workforce after a break, France’s fine on companies that underpay women, or Tunisia’s domestic violence law that protects women from abuse and even bans harassment in public.

Ensure that improvements in “Ease of Doing Business” lead to an increase in women entrepreneurs: In the last two years, the Modi government has implemented several measures to improve ‘ease of doing business’ in India.

Theoretically speaking, aspiring women entrepreneurs should benefit the most, because dealing with the Byzantine rules and regulations is more challenging for women. However, bridging the gender gap in entrepreneurship will require addressing the additional barriers that women face and taking an “engendered” approach to improving the ease of doing business. So, in addition to initiatives like the Grand EoDB challenge — that is, inviting innovative digital solutions for easing government processes — out-of-the box ideas for addressing specific problems of women entrepreneurs must also be solicited.

For instance, since several female-run businesses are in the informal sector and lack access to information, the government will need to run strategic media campaigns to educate business women about information sources and answer frequently-asked questions.

Dedicated women’s help desks at the relevant government departments can help in addressing complaints. Additionally, it must be ensured that the “mindset” barriers that women face are also addressed by conducting gender sensitivity training programmes for government and banking officials.

The writer is Founder, elleNomics