India No Country for Working Women

For several decades we have known that India suffers from high unemployment, even when it was barely reported in the news. That’s probably because we didn’t even bother to measure it as a macroeconomic metric. And perhaps we assumed that in a populous country such as ours, unemployment is bound to be high.

Drive down to any large shopping complex or market in any Indian city, and you are likely to see several people – mostly men, both young and old – clustering around in groups, doing nothing. Maybe drinking tea and chatting, or playing a game of cards, just to kill the time. That this whiling away of time can also be the wasting away of lives, and a huge national waste just never seemed to occur to most of us. The latest news on the unemployment front is distressing to say the least: India’s overall labour force participation rate has fallen precipitously from 46% in 2016 to just 40% in 2021 according to CMIE. Which is to say that more than half of India is not working.

The reasons are plenty and obvious too. Some of it can be explained by our large population, as well as high population growth, low levels of literacy and education, not enough technical or vocational skills, and little participation by the Indian government and our corporate sector in training and skill development. For the first couple of decades after independence, we didn’t even think it was a problem, since 70% of our population lived in rural India.

Since then, India’s economy has grown manifold and we changed from dependence on the primary sector (agriculture and allied activities) to developing the secondary (industry) and tertiary sectors (services). Today, around 50% of our GDP comes from services, while industry has fallen from around 30% to 24% of GDP and agriculture also contributes around 17-18% of GDP. The Indian government, irrespective of political party, has been of the view that the fall in the share of manufacturing must be remedied, but has done little to ensure that there are enough educated and well-trained workers to take up manufacturing jobs which are more high-tech today than 20 years ago.

Industry’s share of India’s GDP has been falling; chart from Statista’s website

And while the share of the various sectors’ contribution to India’s GDP might have changed, the employment picture hasn’t changed very much. Agriculture’s share of GDP might only be 18% or thereabouts today, but it employed over 40% of the workforce in 2019. The wages are meagre, the work seasonal and informal, and most farmers are not the land-owning type, but sharecroppers.

Industry, meanwhile, has automated to a degree unimaginable even a couple of decades ago in India. Sectors such as automobile manufacture which have a significant effect on employment at an industry level actually employ very few people at individual plant level. Yet, the skills required of the few hundreds or thousands employed are of a higher calibre than decades ago. Besides, not all of them are employed on the payrolls of the company; indeed, the share of contract labour in India’s manufacturing sector has been steadily going up over the years, increasing the precariousness of their employment, their wages and benefits, their pensions and finally, even their future upskilling and retraining programmes. That said, industry employed around 25% of the Indian workforce in 2019.

Consider the government’s recent push on labour reforms against this kind of background. It was nothing more than an attempt to make it easier for companies to hire and fire people. Consider also, certain state governments introducing a mandatory quota of jobs for local population, as opposed to hiring people from outside: the state of Haryana recently stipulated 75% job reservation for local population. Political sops trump business sense and economic freedom.

Agriculture still dominates the Indian workforce; chart from Statista’s website

When it comes to services, it accounted for almost 50% of our GDP and employed 32% of India’s workforce in 2019. This has been a growing sector, and has also contributed the most in terms of formalizing the economy. Services from education and healthcare to organized retail, logistics and e-commerce, telecom, information technology, financial services, fintech, biotech, media and communications, supply chain management, travel and hospitality have all helped to modernize the economy as well as formalize it. Of course, parts of this sector were the worst impacted during the Covid-19 pandemic, but hopefully they will recover and grow now.

The importance of education, skills, knowhow and smooth delivery are all-important in the services sector and there are always opportunities for people to be upskilled and trained in these areas. The role of the internet in many of these service sector industries and the growing use of technology also makes it incumbent upon companies in these industries to ensure that their people are up to speed on the latest and are also remunerated accordingly.

As economies modernize and grow, one industry that grows and perhaps even leads the growth phase in the modern age is consulting. It is an overlooked area and by consulting, we mostly understand management consulting or technology consulting. However, I see new frontiers of vast opportunities opening up in the fields of healthcare, engineering, energy and even city management that require specialized knowledge and expertise in the form of consulting services.

Think, for example of a company like L&T offering consulting services in large civil engineering projects, which is moving up the value chain in their industry. Or think of Reliance and BP building expertise in energy systems, from hydrocarbons to renewables and clean hydrogen, and offering specialized consultancy in the field. Think of TCS and Tata Communications building consulting expertise in the area of telecommunications, including satellite-based communications. I must clarify that these are not extensions of the BPO or KPO projects that Indian tech companies already undertake. These would fall under what I call knowledge-based industries, and could boost India’s competitive advantage in this highly specialized technical consulting sector.

Returning to our problem of high unemployment, it shot up during the start of the pandemic to 23.52% in April 2020, according to CMIE and has now moderated to 7.83% in April 2022. The NSSO periodic labour force survey which used to be done once in five years, is now quarterly and that too shows similar levels of unemployment in both urban and rural India. The information tends to be a year old, and not as current and updated as CMIE’s.

I think that India’s unemployment is not just cyclical, but structural. Even in good growth years, our unemployment ranges between 7%-10%, while in a fully functioning, fast-growing economy as we like to claim we are, unemployment should not exceed 4%-5%. Besides, our population is mostly young and of working age; indeed, 65% of India’s population was believed to have been under 35 years of age some years ago. Therefore, if our average unemployment is around 7%-9%, youth unemployment must be even higher. So much for our demographic dividend, that India liked to boast about at the start of this millennium; now it seems it’s under threat.

What’s even worse is the plight of working women. Or the lack of enough women in the workforce. The labour force participation rate for women has been trending lower for a couple of decades now, and it has fallen even lower, if that is possible. From 32% in 2005, the labour force participation rate for women in India had fallen to around 23% in 2012, and is reported to have fallen even lower to 19% in 2021 according to the modeled ILO estimate of the World Bank. Paradoxically, the reason for the fall is that many middle-class families in India who are now better off economically do not feel the need for the woman’s supplementary income. This, when you would have thought that with more educated women at work, families’ and society’s views towards women would have changed for the better, and become more progressive with time. Of course, we don’t know if the numbers of self-employed women have increased during the same period, and if the women who dropped out of the workforce are now pursuing some small businesses from home.

Usually, women’s woes at the workplace have to do with taking time out to have a family and raise kids, because that tends to set their careers back by as many years. They lose out on senior positions in organisations, and many never return to full-time work. Now, we have women dropping out of the Indian workforce in such large numbers, it is cause for alarm. Economic progress has meant that women cannot participate in it, the way they prefer to. She is not meant to pursue a career for herself, and her own aspirations and ambitions; she can work only out of necessity for her husband and family.

I am not being facetious when I say this. As an advertising professional for over 20 years in the Indian advertising and brand communications industry, I have known what women are up against. This, in an industry that hires plenty of women, at least as many as men, if not more. I had begun my career a good seven years before I was married, and my ex-husband and in-laws never ever raised any objection to my pursuing a professional career. On the contrary, they were extremely supportive. I have no children and I continued to pursue my career even after my divorce almost two decades ago. In fact, I worked with renewed zeal, hoping to be able to bring my aged parents from Goa to Delhi and look after them as well as both my grannies.

While the first half of my career was smooth going and fast-growing, the second phase – if I can call it that – was a disaster. These years involved relocating from Delhi to another city as well, for the first time in my long career. I might have made bad choices of organisations to work for, but at the time, these were considered some of the best organisations in the industry. In fact, the last couple of companies I worked for might still claim that they are among the finest in the business.

However, organisations are made of people, and who you have as leaders, matters. Work culture matters. On thinking about it, I realised that many organisations don’t have a mechanism to deal with high achievers or over achievers, nor do they have a way to keep them engaged with enough work and challenging opportunities as well a way to fast-track their career growth. Instead, many organisations are built in the belief that you always have to tutor and instruct everyone all the time, you always have to micro-manage everybody. Very few even have an annual performance appraisal system, where employees get to know their strengths and their weaknesses, what more they need to work on to be able to grow into the next managerial role in the organization and what the company will also do to ensure you reach there.

This was all an intrinsic part of my career growth at Ogilvy, Delhi. Here, I was encouraged to widen my horizons and write for all media. Here, I was also given opportunities to understand and write for other communication disciplines such as direct response and PR, even though I continued to be in advertising. At Ogilvy, I also had many opportunities to contribute to strategy since I happen to have a good analytical mind and it helps that I studied economics in college at Delhi University. At Ogilvy, I also developed an understanding of media. If after so many years in the business I am not merely an advertising copywriter, but an advertising professional with a complete understanding of brands and brand communications, should I be penalized for it? After all, isn’t that how leaders are created in organisations? Where you are encouraged to step out of your silos as you progress, and take on larger responsibilities and learnings to be able to grow into leadership roles.

During the last few years of my career, I had to tolerate male bosses who were well past their usefulness to the organization, even if some were good people. I faced innumerable instances where my own knowledge and understanding of the business as well as my skill sets were vastly superior to the bosses I was reporting to, who couldn’t engage in the right kinds of conversations and discussions on work with me. That also includes company bosses, in some cases. I always had the sense that I was wasting my time in such places and yet, if I tried to invent or create a new opportunity for work, I discovered individual initiative is not encouraged.

What’s worse is that these organisations and their leaders have managed to systematically destroy my career and my life. I continue to be out of work and in Goa with my parents, when I was meant to look after them. The few freelance work assignments that came my way some years ago were nothing more than attempts to make me Sarada, a former colleague whom I hired at Ogilvy Delhi. It is another matter that she has herself contributed to this confusion by trying to be me for several years, which I realized many years ago.

The past 15-18 years have been hell for me and my aged parents in Goa, and you cannot imagine the non-stop meddling that goes on in our lives. Previous employers’ desperate attempts to make me someone else so that they can cover up their unprofessionalism continue unabated, despite my stern email to these company bosses (Perfect Relations and RK Swamy/BBDO) many months ago, when I felt enough was enough. I am more determined with every passing day to take legal action against these companies, and have said so in that email to them, but it seems to have had no effect so far.

I am glad I have been home for all these years, as I have been able to spend time with my aged parents, but not glad in the way it ought to have been. My grannies passed away in 2007 and 2010, and I lost my mother in October 2021. Now, it is only my 89 year-old father and I; unprofessional idiots have been trying desperately to make me him, or my sister, or anyone else for that matter. Who knows how long it will be before I land a job with a good organization working in the area that I have been concentrating on for the past 15 years at least: brand consulting and brand communications. All the thoughts and ideas on brands, brand strategies and brand campaigns that I have been writing and sharing here on my blog are my serious, concerted efforts in that direction. Needless to add, I have been working entirely on my own.

About one thing, I am very clear. That this time, I will be the one deciding what work I do and where. And that it will be after serious and detailed discussions with leaders at good organisations. Hopefully, that should keep pesky, ignorant and unprofessional elements in the corporate world at bay.

Unemployment is a chronic problem in India. Accompanied by gender discrimination, it is even worse. I doubt these unprofessional companies would have dared to try the same nonsense with a male employee in India.

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