India must take steps to include women in global trade as it seeks to bridge the widening gender gap and boost economic growth, Nikita Singla, Associate Director at New Delhi-based Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF) has said.
“Including women in trade will be an important part of achieving women’s economic inclusion,” Singla told Moneycontrol in an interview. “The 2020 joint World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) report on ‘Women and Trade: The Role of Trade in Promoting Women’s Equality’ shows that firms that engage in international trade employ more women, and women are better represented and have relatively higher wages in firms that are part of global value chains (GVCs).
Singla has over the last decade focused on regional cooperation, international trade, logistics, and women empowerment. She has also worked with the World Bank and other multilateral agencies.
While the reduction of gender disparity in economic activity and the distribution of economic gains has been a key agenda item in policy discussions, the percentage of female (above 15 years of age) participation in the labour force in India was only at 20.3 percent in 2020 against the male participation of 75.3 percent, Singla said.
“The participation rate for women in trade is even lower,” she added. In a 2021 UN survey, India scored only 66 percent in "women in trade facilitation".
Before the coronavirus pandemic, only 55 percent of women globally were engaged in the labour market as opposed to 78 percent of men and earned about 50 percent less than men for the same type of work.
Post-pandemic, the gap has only worsened.
“Gender parity will not be attained for the next 99.5 years at the given rate of progress that has been worsened by the Covid-19 crisis as the most recent Global Gender Gap Report 2022 estimates that it will take 132 years to reach full parity,” Singla said.
Post-pandemic research shows that regardless of an economy’s size and level of development, women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, primarily due to over-representation in sectors hit hardest and pre-existing gender disparity.
While digitalisation of work has the potential to level the playing field, especially for women, in a region like Asia, where the female internet user population is considerably lesser than that of the men, the overhaul of services to digital platforms has widened inequalities, the researcher added.
To be sure, India has tweaked its labour laws to enable women to do more. India fares better than its peers in offering 26 weeks of maternity leave, against the International Labor Organization’s standard mandate of 14 weeks that exists in 120 countries.
Several states are tweaking regulations to allow work at night and the authorities have mandated representation in boardrooms. The government schemes also help women set up businesses and access credit.
Still, disparities exist.
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The big gap
Five among the Nifty 100 companies did not have a woman director on their board as of March 2023, according to an analysis by Excellence Enablers. This is despite the Companies Act mandating all listed companies to ensure there is at least one woman independent director on their board.
To further boost women’s participation in trade, the major areas of reform include skilling, training and mentoring; reforms in trade institutions and high-level trade policy reforms, according to Singla.
UN estimates suggest that in India, achieving gender equality could add nearly $700 billion to the gross domestic product by 2025, whereas the International Monetary Fund estimates that India could increase its GDP by nearly 27 percent by achieving more equitable participation of women in the workforce.
“This couples well with India’s recent approach to economic growth and economic policy, over the last few years, focusing on a bottom-up, inclusive route to economic development, with the spotlight on MSMEs, women and youth-owned businesses, digital technologies, and targeted skill development,” Singla said.
Another way to enhance women’s economic empowerment is to focus beyond increasing female employment opportunities, to reducing the double shift burden women face.
“India spends less than 1 percent of its GDP on the care economy; investment in public-sector care infrastructure, of just 2 percent of India’s GDP, could generate 11 million jobs and increase women’s economic and social welfare as they venture out into formal work,” she said.
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The government needs to conceptualise a strategy and action plan for improved care policies, care service provisions and decent working conditions for care workers.
While India fares better than its peers in offering longer maternity leaves, this coverage extends to only a tiny proportion of women workers in formal employment, whereas 89 percent of employed women are in the informal sector.
As such, India should convert maternity leave into parental leave, enabling both mothers and fathers to better balance work and family.
India should also join the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender established at the WTO in 2020 where participation is open to all WTO members, Singla added.