Where is the gap?

He sat opposite me and declared, “We hire only women. They are better workers.” The difference between genders in work ethic, integrity and commitment is something that I have noticed all along in various work situations. So why was I surprised? Was it the fact that 10 years ago, when we were colleagues, he had a long running argument with me about not hiring women as they get married, pregnant and leave. What has changed? Are less women dropping out of work or have years of experience cleared the cobwebs of misconceptions? Or is it that now with his entrepreneur hat on, women provide the most bang for the buck? Is it possible that they agree to salaries that a man with similar qualifications would not?

The gender pay gap in India, as in most of the the world, is well documented. In India, for the same job a woman earns 27 percent less than a man. Will bridging the pay gap prove to be a lever in closing the other big gender gap i.e., that of abysmally lower rate of female participation in the labour force?

India’s gender gap has not narrowed. In Fact, as this Bloomberg article points out, in 2014 nearly 80% of Indian men above the age of 15 were were part of the labour force as against only 27% of the women in the same age group. This 52.9 percentage point labour force participation gender gap in 2014 is bigger than even in 1990 and ensures that India performs better than just a few countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia!

Among many reasons given for the failure in bridging the gap, is that of the U curve economies follow in female workforce participation. As economies begin to develop, agricultural work reduces and girls study longer. With increasing prosperity of the family, lower paying jobs do not make sense and women tend to stay home. Then as better jobs are made available to better qualified women they return to work and their labour force participation picks up forming a U curve.

I understand the logic but it sits uncomfortably in my head. Data and logic are eclipsed by faces of women I have met and researched across India. In a small town in Maharashtra, razor sharp Lakshmi is the only one in the family who can read and write English but is not allowed to work outside home. In many villages in Kutch, adolescent girls long to step out of their homes and work as ‘officers’ but are resigned to embroidering all day, like their mothers did.

Women at work in a village in Kutch

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