Resurgent women: The times they are a changin’

In this edited extract from his book ‘Half a Billion Rising’, Anirudha Dutta says, the coming decade will see more educated women entering the workforce and this will have far-reaching socio-economic implications. Men will have to respect and adapt to live with these changes.

Anirudha Dutta

[Edited extract from the introduction and chapter 9 of ‘Half a Billion Rising’ by Anirudha Dutta] 

Girls and women in India have had eminent status and positions of power from ancient to modern times, in mythology and in real life. Consider this: the gods of learning, wealth and power are all women. Indian mythology is replete with references to princesses and queens who were not only the embodiment of beauty but also of valour, bravery, state craft and wisdom. During the independence movement and after independence we have had some very powerful and successful women political leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, and Indira Gandhi. Unlike most of their male counterparts, and irrespective of whether we agree with their politics or not, leaders like Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee who have emerged over the last three decades are self-made. And it is not just in the field of politics. Take corporate India as well. In recent years many of the large financial institutions and banks, both in the private and public sector, have been led by women CEOs, a record that is globally unprecedented.

It would be easy to conclude that women in India enjoy an exalted status of respect and equality. But this is far from the truth. There has been a wide gulf in the power, esteem and respect that women deities in the Hindu pantheon and a few women in different walks of public life enjoy and what an average girl or woman has to endure through her life. …

But this cycle is changing and breaking down for good. We are at the cusp of a once in a lifetime change. What is increasingly evident is the rise of woman power in India as women get more educated, better informed, more empowered and traditional barriers collapse to give them near equal, if not equal, opportunities. Increasingly one sees and hears of women taking up formal corporate roles in managerial and technical positions as against traditional jobs like teachers and office assistants. The change has been long overdue.

This multi-decadal, once in a lifetime change I believe is an incredibly powerful trend with wide ranging implications over the next decade due to the sheer size of the opportunity. India is home to 586 million women, just over 17 per cent of the world's total number of women. India is also home to 173 million young women below the age of fifteen years, which is about 20 per cent of the world's young women's population. So the developments and changes in the lives of women, socially and economically, are of import not only to India but to the world at large.


As I transcribed the interviews and thought through my conversations, it was very evident that in the coming decade we will see greater participation of women in the labour force, we will see a more educated work force especially amongst women and these will have far reaching socio-economic implications like later marriages, lower fertility rates, better human development indicators and a greater degree of consumerism. Boys and men will have to respect the changes, accept the changes and adapt to live with the changes. It will be the new normal and will leave many maladjusted and bewildered.

During the course of my interviews through 2013, I often felt that the girls I met were more driven, more ambitious, more confident and generally doing better in most of the things that they were engaged in as compared to the boys in their community.

Throughout the interviews that I conducted across cities and across socio-economic strata, the message was very consistent. Girls have an urge to excel and are getting ahead. This is also reflected in the results of school board exams year after year when newspaper headlines scream how girls have performed better than boys. We have seen how more girls are graduating out of colleges than ever before and how they make up a third of the workforce in leading IT and financial services companies.

The impact of being more educated and smarter is already being felt when it comes to marriage. Indian parents are obsessed with the marriage of their children, girls and boys alike. With girls getting more educated and more ambitious, many of them will find it harder to find partners within their present socio-economic communities. Men will find it harder to handle a confident young woman who knows her mind and is unwilling to live by the earlier tenet of an adarsh bhartiya naari. In many of the stories that I have chronicled, I saw that girls were getting married to men who were less qualified. Give it another few years and many girls will not be willing to do so.

The challenges of finding a right partner will also cut across socio-economic strata. At one end is the mental conditioning, as we saw with Meghna and other girls, where they would like their husbands to be at least as qualified as they are, if not more. Saira told me that she would find it difficult to find a husband from her immediate community.

It is evident that the marriage age will rise, motherhood will be delayed, fertility will reduce and more women will start working in paid jobs outside their homes. Almost every girl I spoke to during this research said she would like to have two children, as against the fertility rate of 2.59 children per woman as per Census 2011, which itself is a decline of 18 per cent in a decade.

In 2007, CLSA, the investment bank that I worked in then, did two surveys among employees in the IT sector and financial services sector. The surveys found that among the respondents 54–57 per cent had spouses who were home makers and not engaged in full-time employment. However, among unmarried respondents, 84 per cent said that they would look for a working spouse and would prefer their spouse to be in full-time employment. What was particularly interesting was that preference for a working spouse remained unchanged between respondents from the top seven cities versus the other 240+ cities.

The picture that emerged from the surveys is very clear. In this decade and over the next, women’s participation in the labour force will rise, both in urban and semi-urban areas. This will drive two trends. The first one is that men will have to share more household chores. Traditionally the world over, women do the lion’s share of work in their homes. Even today in developed societies like the US, working women do the major share of the work in their homes. As Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, ‘I still struggle with the trade-offs between work and home on a daily basis. Every woman I know does…’ And Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO, recently said that women can’t have it all which sparked a lively debate in the media.

The west is much better at it than India where boys in a majority of the households are still brought up thinking that they are special and do not need to do any household chores, which is the primary job of girls and women. Families will need to ensure that boys participate in household chores as much as the girls do. Interview after interview, the girls said that they expect their partners and husbands to share in household chores. Training for this will have to start not during dating or after marriage, but much before that. This is what Tina meant when she told me that Indian mothers will need to teach their sons how to change nappies.

Changes at the societal level are not just about finding equal and supportive partners but they also need to drive attitudinal and behavioural changes among men and in society at large towards girls and women. It has been seen that childhood experiences of abuse and violence are associated with the perpetration of violence in most countries. Therefore, change has to start early and will have to happen at the family and local community levels. Once again the role of governments and more importantly grassroot NGOs will be critical.

Another trend will be of the increasing number of househusbands or husbands in temporary or part-time jobs as their wives have high flying careers. Already in metros it is easy to see fathers dropping their children to school or attending parent teacher meetings because their wives are travelling on work. There is nothing non-masculine about it. Men the world over are doing it although the change is very slow.

Shreya Sen Handley, a prolific blogger and contributor to different newspapers and magazines across the world including National Geographic, recently wrote:

And it’s still frowned upon for men to become stay-at-home dads. Between 1993 and 2007, the number of stay-at-home dads had gone up by a huge 83 per cent in the UK. By 2007, in the US, homemaking dads made up approximately 2.7 per cent of the nation’s stay-at-home parents, triple the percentage from 1997, and up every year since 2005. In India, according to a 2006 study, as much as three percent of all urban fathers were stay-at-home dads, which would have been unacceptable and unheard of a decade before that. And yet, in every case, it is a very small percentage of the male population, because this is a ‘role reversal’ that frightens most men and many women.

Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says that of her batch of MBAs from Harvard, nearly 50 per cent of the women had dropped out of the workforce in twenty years. She writes:

But more than twenty years after my college graduation, the world has not evolved as much as I believed it would. Almost all my male class mates work in professional settings. Some of my female classmates work full-time or part-time outside the home, and just as many are stay-at-home mothers and volunteers like my mom. This mirrors the national trend.

A 2007 survey of Harvard Business School alumni found that in less than ten years after graduation only 81 per cent of the women who graduated continued to work full-time and in fifteen to twenty years the number declined to 49 per cent.

This is important to mention since girls who were pursuing MBA in Harvard had presumably decided to have a career and must have been among the brightest and most ambitious within their cohort. In USA, 74 per cent of professional women who drop out of the workforce return to work in any capacity and only 40 per cent return to full-time jobs, as they change their focus to having a family and then on supporting their husbands and their children. In India the problem is also acute since the participation of women in the labour force is low to begin with and then a large number of women drop out from the workforce to bring up their families.

Women make up only 24 per cent of India’s workforce and only 5 per cent of them reach the top as compared to the global average of 20 per cent. A recent study found that 36 per cent of Indian working women take a break; this proportion is similar to USA and Germany. Interestingly they take shorter breaks at an average of 11 months as against 2.7 years in the US and 1.9 years in Germany, with 58 per cent returning to full time jobs. What is different is that in India women take breaks for childcare and also for elder care; but while childcare is slowly being outsourced, elder care still is not. According to Infosys, while competitive career opportunities is the top reason for men who leave, for women it is personal reasons and attrition among women is higher than it is among men.

Experiences of companies like ICICI Bank show that women are not only as productive as their male counterparts but are also excellent leaders. To realize their potential, corporate policies will have to be designed to support and keep women in the workforce for longer. Some of the obvious measures are flexible working hours, longer maternity leave, generous childcare support, paternity leave, quality childcare services and support close to place of work or larger housing complexes in cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru. If the intent is right, more creative solutions will emerge.

As more girls start working, the marriage age will be pushed upwards and coupled with the trend that more girls by choice or otherwise will possibly remain single, we are likely to see lower fertility rates, more adoption of children and better child and maternal health. Within my circle of friends I know of at least two couples who have decided not to have biological children and have opted for adoption in the last decade. One of the prominent role models that has emerged is Sushmita Sen, model, actor and former Miss Universe, who as a single parent has adopted two daughters. There are many more couples I know who have decided not to have any children so as not to compromise with their careers or their lifestyles.

Later marriages and better education will mean better maternal and child health. Coupled with slightly better governance in the public space this will mean dramatic improvements in social and human development indicators.

According to data from the National Sample Survey’s (NSS) sixty-eighth survey, the labour force participation rate (LFPR) in the age group of 15–59 years for the entire population was 58.3 per cent. The numbers for men and women were 83 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. Even today nearly 70 per cent of women not in the labour force are engaged in domestic duties and a lesser percentage are in education and/or retired. The numbers for rural and urban India are starker.

While LFPR for men in urban and rural areas was 81 per cent and 84 per cent respectively, the numbers for women were 22 per cent and 38 per cent respectively. This is another paradox. Given more opportunities in urban India and better qualifications (higher education and better skill set development opportunities), one would naturally have expected that the labour force participation rate would be higher in urban India than in rural India. But that is not the case. This is possibly due to the fact that in rural India a larger proportion of women engage in manual labour in the fields or in construction, whereas in urban India, led by higher economic standards, women have access to office or domestic jobs, which are smaller in number; many may choose not to enter the job market.


[One] reason is that as women get more educated, as is evident from school enrolments and their proportion in colleges and universities, their entry into the workforce is delayed and thus, it will not be surprising to see the labour pool shrink in certain age groups even as the overall quality of the labour pool improves significantly.

To improve women’s participation in the labour force more jobs will have to be generated closer to home, there has to be a quantum leap in day care facilities for children close to home and close to places of work and increased opportunities for women to work from home and with flexible working hours, if necessary. These are issues that policy makers need to think about as we prepare for a period when women’s participation in the workforce is bound to increase. I remember listening to Professor Nirmalya Kumar many years back speaking about Zara’s manufacturing model in Italy. Zara had organized local women’s co-operatives in different localities in what was a win-win situation. It meant that Zara could still keep a part of its production in a country like Italy when most garment manufacturing was moving to China and other emerging countries without losing its cost competitiveness due to tax and other benefits, and for the women it meant working in small groups close to home.

In India there are small entrepreneurs, NGOs and some companies like Fabindia which follow the same model but this has to be scaled up to make a difference as millions of women are employed in this way. Flipkart, India’s largest online retailer and market place, is planning to link traditional craftsmen and artisans to customers through its platform.

This tectonic shift of better educated, more aspirational girls and their increase in the workforce will present huge opportunities for a wide range of companies and service providers. A report titled ‘XX Factor: The Impact of Working Women on India’s Growth, Incomes and Consumption’ published in 2007 estimated that increased women’s participation in the workforce, XX trend, could make Indians 12 per cent richer by 2025 than otherwise projected. When the report was published, the author had estimated that the XX trend ‘could add US$35bn to GDP, lifting incremental demand by 10 per cent’.

This coupled with the fact that the coming generation will be relatively more resource rich and time constrained will provide an opportunity for suppliers of different products and services. Once women start working and gain some amount of independence and control over their economic well-being and finances, they will have a larger say in the savings and consumption of households. Across a range of household expenditures, working women spend more than non-working women given that they have more control over their finances and better say in how they spend and what they earn.

Multiple sectors will be big beneficiaries. Given that women focus more on the education and healthcare of their families, clearly education and out of school classes will be the first beneficiaries. Retail financial services will find a new cohort of consumers and they will need to tailor-make their products in some cases to address this group of consumers as it becomes significant in numbers.

Products and services that can help save time or free up time for leisure and quality family time will be lapped up.

Companies and businesses that identify and cater to these trends will be big beneficiaries and long term winners.

This excerpt from Half a Billion Rising by Anirudha Dutta is reprinted with the permission of Rupa Publications India.

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About the author

Anirudha Dutta
Anirudha Dutta

Analyst, Financial services sector

Anirudha Dutta has been working in the financial services sector for over two decades. He holds a degree in engineering from IIT, Kharagpur, and a postgraduate diploma in business management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. 'Half a Billion Rising: The Emergence of the Indian Woman' is his first book.

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