What holds us back?

Seema Kumar

I recently came across data visualization of the amount of unpaid work that women do. What is unpaid work? It’s the domestic, unpaid labor they do day after day: cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare, and more. It should come as no surprise that a major percentage of the world’s unpaid labor is done by women, especially in developing countries. And guess which countries are on the list of the worst offenders? India, for one. Why is this important? Read more here. That’s why we are thrilled that Melinda Gates has announced 1 billion dollars toward gender equality.

Gender equality in India has come a long way in the past decade. While India still remains a developing nation, a lot has changed since I grew up in India. A country that was heavily reliant on agriculture and manufacturing, it was also heavily regulated and government owned with strict trade barriers that kept the country from participating in an increasingly global economy. There were few job opportunities for people, and fewer opportunities for women in general.

But since the 1990s, when India opened trade and began to invest in science and technology, it transformed itself into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. With increasing spend in R&D and science and technology, it has established itself as a leader in multiple sectors, including automobiles, textiles, digital technologies and life sciences and biotech, especially in generics. India’s biggest potential, though, is yet to be realized. And that is the power of its women. If India can tackle gender equality and unlock the full power of its women leaders, it can become an international juggernaut.

In a recent Oxfam report, India performs poorly on Gender Equality measures, ranking 127th on the Gender Inequality index. Although I am heartened by the progress India is making toward gender equality, women still lag behind men and also drop out of the workforce. It’s a leaky bucket. Gender bias continues to be at the root of why women leave STEM careers in India.

Counting unpaid work would increase female labour force participation to 87%. So what holds us back from unlocking that potential? This cultural phenomenon is deep-rooted and it is hard to change overnight centuries of deep-rooted beliefs about gender equality.

 I recently spoke about this issue at the TiECON  SouthWest conference in LA, highlighting the opportunity cost of leaving the equivalent of 28 trillion in GDP on the table by not including women in the workforce. Only a small percentage of members of TiE are women and the organization including the men agreed. Many men came over to me after the talk with great appreciation for this topic. I was heartened by the self awareness I felt in the room.  This gives me a great sense of optimism. I see changes happening and new policies being put in place to tackle gender issues and support women in the workplace, but enforcement of these policies are important to accelerate progress.