Before you unlock a woman’s potential, why don’t you improve her financial life first? - Firstpost
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Before you unlock a woman’s potential, why don’t you improve her financial life first?

By Sneha Rajaram

There seems to be a growing noise around how Indian women can, and do not, contribute more to the national GDP. As more people scramble onto this misguided bandwagon, it’s important to point out how they're grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

Last week, Dominic Barton, the global managing director of management consulting firm McKinsey & Co, wrote a list of recommendations for India’s growth that included what he calls “unlocking the [economic] potential of women.” Also last week, the International Labour Organisation(ILO) declared, “Decreased labour force participation of women in India is a big problem. It is very important to promote their participation, their involvement in the Indian economy."

In his article from last week, Barton bases his recommendations on a report on gender parity in the workforce,published a few months ago by the McKinsey Global Foundation (MGI), the research arm of McKinsey & Co. This report, which contains studies on India, is titled “How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth”, and cynically incentivises gender parity with economic growth; it presents, to use its own phrase: “the economic case for gender parity”.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Women are already a very large part of the workforce – but not in the way that McKinsey, or the GDP, wants. The McKinsey report initially made news last year with headlines like this: “Indian Women Do 10 Times As Much Unpaid Work As Men: McKinsey”. At first, it sounds like MGI is telling us that Indian women contribute to 17 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product while doing 10 times the amount of unpaid care work that men do – child care included. It even sounds like McKinsey wants the government and private sector to find a way to pay for women’s unpaid work – including domestic and care work:

[…] some of it could be reduced or eliminated through improved infrastructure and automation, shared more equitably by male and female members of the household, or converted into paid jobs, including through state-funded or market-driven care services. It should be noted that some of these interventions would result in higher GDP to the extent that time saved by women is used for paid work.

And that seems to be a vindication for millions of Indian women. But afterwards, the report’s authors reveal that they actually devalue this kind of household and care work – for example, it becomes clear that they want more girls to be educated in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) areas of study, presumably because STEM contributes more to the GDP than domestic work. In its recommendations for corporate social responsibility (CSR) in this matter, the report tips its hand:

CEOs could start by determining which segment of women they would like their company to have an impact on and tailoring its strategy to that segment. They can focus on relatively well-defined groups such as less-skilled women in rural areas […]

Not only does McKinsey consider rural women’s labour to be less skilled than STEM work (which makes us wonder just how many of its authors have tried a single daily task that rural Indian women perform), but it also reveals that the ultimate goal is never gender parity and always more productivity:

[W]omen are disproportionately represented in lower-productivity sectors such as agriculture and insufficiently represented in higher productivity sectors such as business services. Shifting women into work in higher productivity sectors on a par with the employment pattern of men would contribute another 23 percent of the total opportunity. For example, in most countries, services productivity for women is lower than that of men because women are disproportionately concentrated in low-productivity sectors (as measured by GDP per worker) such as education and health services.

“Shifting” women “higher” into more productive work (by now it’s clear that “productive” here just means “lucrative”), rather than shifting the money towards the women, in whichever line of work they want to be, leaves a couple of questions. What happens to agriculture, education and health services? And are men going to be encouraged to “shift” into low-productivity jobs?

Contrast the global consultant’s approach with the ILO’s:

Steps are needed to recognize the contribution to economies of unpaid care and domestic work in the provision of public goods and services and infrastructure, including through social protection policies (target 5.4). Some innovations have been adopted in this regard, such as India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee, which provides households a guarantee of 100 days’ paid work on useful public projects. After nearly a decade, the NREG has reduced poverty and drawn millions of women into paid work. The region also needs to undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, in accordance with national laws (target 5a).

Of course, individual women who want to move into higher productivity jobs because that improves their own lives deserve the world’s support. But can’t productivity (i.e. higher pay, to continue the decoding), better working conditions, unionisation, vacations, insurance, and pensions themselves be shifted to the work that women currently do, if they want to continue doing it? Can it be that traditional women’s work will never be compensated in the way that, say, STEM work will be, because our age of compulsive technology-mongering and war-mongering needs (or thinks it needs) STEM more than “less skilled” “women’s work”?

McKinsey’s “gender parity score”, a number they’ve come up with to compare women’s economic participation in different countries’ GDPs, is another example of its dangerous tunnel vision. How much do we want to push for gender parity in the economy, above and beyond the level of individual choice (again, the individual woman who wants a more lucrative job deserves all our support)? And what strain does that place on us women in terms of the invisible ways in which we're stressed apart from work? The workplace is often very hostile to women (the terms ‘microaggressions’ and ‘sexual harassment’ come to mind).Simply increasing or equalising work hours does nothing except put more pressure on women.

The above are some of the things we need to think about before we start “unlocking women’s potential”. How about “improving women’s financial lives” instead? Let’s hope that we still live in a world where improving women’s lives can be done for the sake of improving women’s lives.

Sneha Rajaram is writer-at-large at the online women’s magazine The Ladies Finger.

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