There are, of course, strong normative and humanitarian reasons to guarantee full gender equality and sufficient legal protection for women in India, as
elsewhere. But the economic and political consequences - the material costs - of gender discrimination are often overlooked.
Consider this: India's female labor participation rate was just 29
percent in 2010, according to the International Labor Organization, representing a slight decline over the previous two years. This decline can be attributed to a number of factors, including increases in female
higher education, rising household incomes, erroneous data, and limited opportunity in sectors that traditionally employ women. Re-entering the workforce
after childbirth also remains difficult. India's profile nevertheless compares very unfavorably to the 68 percent female labor participation in China, and
among G20 economies, only Turkey (28 percent) and Saudi Arabia (17 percent) lag behind.
Women thus constitute just a quarter of India's 473 million strong workforce, although as the journalist Rupa Subramanya notes, that does not count the
substantial, if immeasurable, contributions
they make in the domestic realm. True parity in terms of employment - the addition of about 203 million women to the Indian workforce, given sufficient
demand for such labor - would boost the economy by roughly $900 billion, assuming consistent levels of productivity. Under those circumstances, India's
average annual growth over the past decade could have been 11.6 percent instead of 7.7 percent. Women's inequality may, in other words, have cost India's
economy almost 4 percent of annual growth over the past 10 years.
The consequences have been immense. Naturally, the most important result of a divergent outcome would have been the enormous social and economic benefits
for over a half billion women. India's evolution into a middle-income country could also have been more easily assured. Politically, this would also have
granted India much more international leverage: it would have become a more attractive destination for global investment, and comparisons with China's magnificent
growth would perhaps have seemed less far-fetched.
Beyond cultural norms and the absence of mandated family planning, a few factors have contributed to India's inability to increase women's employment.
While the country has made admirable gains in improving some aspects of welfare - life expectancy, for example, has risen dramatically - and may even be
ahead of the curve
in terms of women's political empowerment, education remains a challenge.
The ratio of female to male enrollment in primary education is effectively equal, and females constitute some 48 percent of secondary school students.
However, in terms of higher education, the numbers diverge sharply: just 42 percent of Indian college students are female. Education, along with fertility,
has a direct impact on changing cultural norms. Women are also disproportionally disadvantaged by a lack of opportunity in the manufacturing sector, with
the vast majority still employed in agricultural pursuits. And India's labor laws protect existing workers -primarily men - at the expense of aspiring
ones, which include most women. Manish Sabharwal, an Indian human resource entrepreneur, says that this may explain why an estimated 97 percent of working
women have jobs in the informal sector.