women often end up in lower-paid and less-responsible positions than their abilities would otherwise allow them – which, in turn, makes it less likely that they will choose to work at all, especially as household incomes rise and they don’t absolutely have to work to survive.
This picture may seem daunting. Yet seemingly immutable norms can crumble when labor markets begin to properly value women’s work. The garment industry in neighboring Bangladesh accounts for over 75 percent of national export earnings and, strikingly, nearly 80 percent of Bangladesh’s four million garment-sector workers are women. The explosive growth of that industry during the last 30 years caused a surge in large-scale female labor force participation. It also delayed marriage age and caused parents to invest more in their daughters’ education. Those changes, in turn, very likely reinforced Bangladesh’s strong growth record in the garment sector. In India, in professional sectors where there has been sharp expansion, and where working conditions are clearly good, women have done very well. One example is financial services: While only one in 10 Indian companies are led by women, more than half of them are in the financial sector. Today, women head both the top public and private banks in India.
Another example is India’s aviation sector, which positioned itself early on as a female-friendly profession. Today, 11.7 percent of India’s 5,100 pilots are women, versus 3 percent worldwide.
These successes, though, represent a few thousand women in a country of hundreds of millions. India needs policies that will create a rapid and widespread demand for women’s work similar to what happened in Bangladesh. In the absence of a fast-growing manufacturing sector that creates jobs for women, the answer for India may be expanding gender quotas in the labor market.
India has already successfully used such quotas in local elections. Research shows that in places with quotas, more women ran for office and more women won, even after the quotas were no longer in place. The quotas raised parents’ aspirations for their daughters, and the girls’ aspirations for themselves. The increase in female elected leaders also resulted in better outcomes for women overall: More funds were spent on public goods and services that benefit women, and women were more likely to speak out about acts of violence. The economy benefited too, as, more women took out business loans in villages that had a quota.
India’s other big experiment in gender quotas, starting in the 1980s, was with female teachers in schools. Again, using data from India’s labor surveys, we find that education is the largest sector employing women in urban areas and the largest, except for agriculture, in rural areas. Introducing, and rigorously evaluating, quotas in other sectors that are accessible to young educated women and that offer them an attractive career in a safe workplace is a promising next step.
Moreover, to ensure that the supply of able and trained women meets the new demand, the establishment of quotas needs to be supported by safe and effective job training and placement programs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech last year emphasized the need to transform India’s gender norms. Little, though, has changed in the year since.
What is needed is obvious: Mr. Modi and his advisers should make wider use of the policy tools already available, including quotas and training, to ensure that all of India’s women have the opportunity to undertake rewarding work — work that will allow them to determine the course of their own lives, those of their families and that of their country