January 22, 2020
Closing the Gender Gap in India: What Will It Take?

The recent Global Gender Gap Report 2020, published by the World Economic Forum, has some troubling findings — it reveals that global gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years. India is ranked a sobering 112 out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index, falling 4 positions from the last report in 2018. What is more dire is India’s bottom 5 ranking in the Economic Participation and Opportunities sub index, where we stand at 149, ahead of only Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq! According to the report:

The economic gender gap runs particularly deep in India. Only one-third of the gap has been bridged (score of 35.4%, 149th, down 7 places). Since 2006, the gap has gotten significantly wider. Among the 153 countries studied, India is the only country where the economic gender gap is larger than the political gender gap. Only one-quarter of women, compared with 82% of men, engage actively in the labour market (i.e. working or looking for work) — one of the lowest participation rates in the world (145th). Furthermore, female estimated earned income is a mere one-fifth of male income, which is also among the world’s lowest (144th). Women only account for 14% of leadership roles (136th) and 30% of professional and technical workers. (p 31)

The 2019 gender balance scorecard by Solver Inc paints a similar picture, finding that India’s Nifty 50 (one of India’s main stock indices) are “snoozing” on gender balance, with only one of the fifty (Cipla) achieving balance, and half of the companies lacking a woman in their leadership team. Companies like Tech Mahindra and Infosys are a few of those that are actively working towards constituting a gender-balanced leadership team.

Much has been made in recent years in India about supporting women-led enterprises, with multiple government and private initiatives proposed. The latest of these is the government’s December 2019 announcement that 10% of the newly established INR 10K Cr Fund of Funds for nurturing innovation and startups in the country will be reserved for women entrepreneurs. Given these initiatives and attention to gender, why does India rank so low in its gender gap and gender balance?

The answer in addressing these gaps and imbalances relates to both access to funding and female representation more broadly. ANDE’s June 2018 Global Accelerator Learning Initiative report on acceleration in India showed that ventures with women were more likely to have earned revenue and have employees, but less likely to have raised equity than ventures with all-male teams, so gender lens investing is important. But it’s not just funding. A recent Kauffman Fellows Research Center study on gender diversity in venture capital and startups found that when the number of women in founding startup roles increases, opportunities for success for other women increase as well. This shows that creating role models and letting more women have a say are crucial in achieving gender equality. This applies across the SGB ecosystem — perhaps more women as angel investors (this article identifying an all-male top ten shows how low that bar is) will lead to increased interest in and support for both gender lens investing and more capacity building tailored specifically to the needs of women entrepreneurs.

We at the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) have identified gender as one of our key urgent issue areas in our updated organizational strategy, through which we will continue to advocate for and support the small and growing business (SGB) ecosystem. Our urgent issue brief on this topic argues that in the SGB sector, besides funding, attention must also be paid to gender inclusive employment practices, designing products and services that deeply consider the needs and experiences of women as consumers, and encouraging multinational corporations to use their significant financial clout to incentivize gender equity through their sourcing policies. These policies would certainly apply to the Indian context.

Our recently announced Advancing Women’s Empowerment Fund is trying to get that ball rolling, by supporting interventions testing innovative ways to support women entrepreneurs in emerging markets. Specifically, in its first round, it aims to tackle the gender financing gap in East and Southeast Asia via innovative solutions that make women lead enterprises more investible. We hope that initiatives like these, along with continued government commitments, will encourage others in the private and public sectors to jump on this bandwagon. It’s easy to develop overly simplistic targets and incentives which can lead to a superficial focus on women, so we are paying careful attention to impact measurement and monitoring and evaluation more broadly. Ultimately, the fund aims to cultivate useful learnings and insights for uptake by the broader SGB sector by testing a variety of models.

While the conversation has largely moved past the point of having to make a case for gender equality at its most broad, significant progress has been painfully slow when it comes to economic participation and opportunities for women in India. It is my earnest hope that talk will lead to real action in closing the gender gap in India and around the world.