India’s young demography is a well-documented global story. However, there is much more to the human capital of a country than a headcount of the workforce. It is also about quality and casting the net wide to make the labour market more gender equitable. In 1990, only 60% of 21-year-old women — the average age for a person joining the queue of job hopefuls — were literate. With men, there was 70% literacy at age 21. This has vastly improved in a quarter century: 85% of women and 90% of men at age 21 are now literate. At this rate, in all likelihood, soon, 100% of the 21-year-olds going into the labour force will be literate.
Indeed, for those with exposure to better opportunities, there are optimistic signs. More and more women are taking over as corporate bosses breaking through the glass ceiling in industries that were earlier considered male-only bastions in India. This mirrors the growing pool of women in C-Suite positions in industries that were mostly led by male executives. About 11% of 240 large companies have women CEOs, according to a study carried out by EMA Partners in 2009. In comparison, only 3% of the Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. About half of these women CEOs are in the financial services sector, but the manufacturing sector, which traditionally did not attract too many women, is now increasingly appointing lady CEOs.
Yet, women lag behind men in many social indicators like education and employment opportunities. For instance, India ranks among the lowest in the world in female labour force participation, behind even relative low-income countries such as Bhutan and Bangladesh. According to the World Bank, India’s female labour force participation is at 27%, compared to Bhutan’s 67% and Bangladesh’s 58%. Since the beginning of the reforms programme in 1991, India’s female labour force participation has fallen from 35% to 27%, a clear sign that the organised sector has employed fewer women compared to men. If the Indian economy were an aircraft in mid-flight, it is facing the equivalent of a frightful turbulence. The rough patches in a 25-year flight have spooked some passengers more. Major drawbacks in the economy are keeping millions of women from moving up on the “income” ladder and “well-being”. For a country where parents in many pockets still treasure boys over girls, tapping the wealth of women’s talent, which account for half of India’s workforce, is critical for reaping the demographic dividend.