Even though reforms did not target women specifically, they changed the lives of millions of Indian girls. And things can only get better.
24 July 1991, 5 PM. My second innings in the corporate world had just started after finishing my PGDBM in April of that year. Most people of my generation will remember where they were at 5PM on that day when Dr Manmohan Singh stood up in Parliament to deliver his maiden Budget speech. I was in Pune in a room in Hotel Blue Diamond (now part of the Taj group) after having finished the day’s meetings and with an hour to spare before I caught the train back to Bombay. There was palpable excitement, a sense that something big was happening and India would never be the same again.
It was no different for Paroma Roy Choudhury, then a journalist starting her career in Kolkata. When we spoke over the phone, she reminisced, “1991 is the turning point for our generation in India.” Paroma is today a Vice-President with SoftBank of Japan, one of the leading telecommunications and internet companies of the world, and is based in Gurgaon. While she calls Gurgaon her home, she spends as much time in other leading cities of the world—Tokyo, San Francisco and Mumbai. Life changed for her in ways she did not or could not imagine when she took up her first job.
Paroma is not alone. Life changed for millions of girls and women in this country, as it did for men. The big change in my view was the job opportunities that opened up after economic reforms started. Paroma told me, “The biggest change that I see is that the number of women in the workforce has increased exponentially.” When I was growing up in my lower middle class and middle class milieu, I saw very few women working. Majority of the working women whom I knew were teachers or doctors. In the corporate environment, majority of the jobs were those of receptionists, typists and assistants, and as tailors in apparel factories. Many professions did not even exist in India then, or were the preserve of a few stodgy public sector units. Think banks, think television, think telecom, civil aviation, shopping malls and organized retail. Anu Lall, an entrepreneur now based in Singapore said, “I am a (almost) third generation working woman from both sides of my family, but working acquired a new meaning (after reforms). Role models changed from women being professors and IAS officers to very glam, well-traveled ‘private sector’ women.”
Over a period of time, reforms opened up a plethora of job opportunities. Of these, information technology and business process outsourcing (BPO) are without doubt the two most important sectors. These would not have grown the way they did if India’s economy had not opened up, foreign exchange laws liberalised, imports made easier and telecom costs not dropped precipitously. These two sectors have created direct employment opportunities for millions of youngsters and over a third of the workforce in leading IT and BPO companies today are women. At the entry level in many companies, as much as 50 per cent are women. No other sector has created as many opportunities for women.
Similar opportunities opened up in media, telecom and financial services. With changing regulations and the entry of MNCs, opportunities in the private sector exploded. Jobs opened up for students who were not from elite engineering and management institutes. Companies initially recruited from the renowned city colleges but soon started frequenting campuses in smaller towns, and BPO centres opened up in cities like Hyderabad, Pune, Kochi, and Jaipur.
Somshukla Dutta, Mumbai-based homemaker, grew up in Jamshedpur, one such small town. In her words, “The effects of higher incomes brought with it a feeling of empowerment. Children from the city that I grew up in, started spreading their wings. Earlier, the very meritorious or male students were given the privilege of leaving our city and stepping out for distant shores. Now, a time had finally dawned when parents saw the merit in sending out their children, regardless of gender, to earn their rightful place under the sun. This probably got replicated in thousands of middle and upper middle class families all over India. And girls went all out and proved their mettle. The internet boom opened up unimaginable opportunities for women. Stay-at-home moms are running virtual businesses worth lakhs of rupees, thanks to Facebook, Instagram and the likes.”
As women became more visible at the workplace, opportunities opened up in traditional sectors like manufacturing. I am told that Siemens India has a factory with 50 per cent of the shopfloor workforce being women, and in GE’s latest factory in Pune, the proportion is 30 per cent. This was a predominantly male bastion even in the 1990s. Says Madhukar Shukla, professor of organizational behaviour at Xavier School of Management , Jamshedpur: “For the urban educated women, the economic reforms have been a boon. Till the early 90s, many kinds of jobs in corporates—for instance, plant level or sales jobs—were almost ‘banned’ for women, which are now accessible to them.”
Madhukar has raised an important point. In the pre-reforms days, many jobs were seen as unsuitable for women. The post-reforms period has seen a big attitudinal and behavioural change in Indian society—women have taken up these roles and performed very well. What do economic reforms have to do with this? I think the opening up of the economy brought in a large number of MNCs in almost every sector and they were open to recruiting more women and encouraged women to join their workforce in every function. Plus the job opportunities multiplied as private sector banks, mobile telecom companies and television content companies mushroomed.
Employment and jobs have meant economic security and financial independence for women. This cuts both ways—if at one end, it gives the woman a greater say in decision making in the family and a newfound respect, on the other it can result in tensions and ego issues if in a patriarchal Indian society, she starts being seen as equal to her male partner. There are enough anecdotes to show that both are true. But how do women see this economic independence? I spoke to Aditi Venkataraman, a home maker, and Sheetal Nagle, a professional working with one of the Big Four audit firms about this, both from Mumbai. Aditi did her MBA from a top business school in the early 1990s and had a successful career in a leading private sector bank for over a decade before she voluntarily retired to take care of her two children. According to Aditi, “Economic independence has reduced the compulsion of marriage. More singles and less dominance of men in the marriage market. Women have become more demanding. The tech and cellphone revolution has impacted women big time. From maids being reachable on phones to online shopping to apps of all kinds. Crèches now have parents watching their kids online. The job of baby-sitting is also conveniently pushed to the iPad.”
Sheetal’s views are very similar. Sheetal told me, “The compensation packages offered by MNCs have made Indian women financially independent and confident. This has changed the contours of a typical Indian family. We now have women delaying marriage, delaying childbirth, if not completely shunning the idea. The Indian woman is no longer the caretaker and giver, but someone who thinks of her own wellbeing.” Some of this is reflected in the census data. As per Census 2011, women in India have a fertility rate of 2.59, which is a decline of 18 per cent in a decade. As Paroma told me, “Reforms brought in more choices, and when you are financially independent, you exercise your choice—choose who to get married to, who to divorce…”
Women have their moments of self-doubt, having been conditioned about their traditional role in families before and after marriage. But they are taking rational decisions. Sheetal asked me, “In balance, is it that while the Indian women is now better off professionally, she has given up on her core strengths of being a mother and caretaker?” Then she answered herself, “But then who has made these rules and who decides what’s core to one? I would think, each to his own. The economic reforms have opened up new opportunities and avenues for the Indian women. It’s up to us to calibrate and decide what suits us best.”
As I spoke to various girls and women during the course of my research for my book (Half A Billion Rising) and for this piece, it became obvious that the progress made by women is not the same across socio-economic strata and/ or across the rural-urban divide. I believe that urbanisation, better roads, growth of smaller towns and cities, access to mobile phones and TV have made girls and women in small towns ambitious, confident and given them access to education, relatively better and safer transport etc. Better roads, safer transport and better infrastructure like say toilets makes education more accessible to young girls. In 1990, only 60 per cent of 21-year-old women were literate and in 2011, this figure had improved to 85 per cent. The 2011 Census was a landmark one because for the first time, out of the total number of literates added during the decade, females outnumbered males.
Undoubtedly, education is the gateway to more opportunities and empowerment. All this is outwardly visible in their attire, their desire to work, and anecdotally from the employee profiles of organizations like the BPOs. Paroma, who has earlier worked with Google and Genpact, saw this very clearly, more so at Genpact. “Genpact BPO centres had deep penetration into Tier 2 towns, especially for voice calling. Back office jobs changed the lives of these youngsters, particularly women. These jobs have been the agents of economic change just not in their lives but for entire families.”
Similarly, as more women joined the formal workforce, the demand for and wages of women in the informal workforce, primarily in the urban areas, grew rapidly—the famous trickledown theory at work. Sheetal observes, “There is now a higher dependence on domestic help, who now command premium wages, and this has meant that they can offer better education and other facilities to their children.” Microfinance institutions have played an important role in empowering thousands of women in the countryside. Shampa Kochhar, a graduate of XLRI Jamshedpur, who lives in Bangalore, spoke about how in the 1980s, women seeking equal position and/ or opportunity at home and work were unpopular concepts. In the 1990s, she saw all this changing. She says, “For the English speaking, educated Indian woman brought up in urban, cosmopolitan middle class homes, things could not have been better.”
But that was not all. Shampa continued, “In a haphazard and inconsistent manner, with no involvement of the government machinery, there were positive changes happening with that lot (the help and support system of maids and nannies) too…they were handsomely rewarded, in cash and kind, and also with compassion and affection. Over a decade, they cleared their debts, built their own homes, arranged for better education for their progeny, received good medical care and were able to start saving and planning for their retirement.” Nannies have become not only an integral part of the urban working woman’s life but also at times the most important cog that keeps the wheels running.
But India is a complex country and there is no one universal truth. While tremendous progress has been made in multiple areas, women continue to face significant social hurdles, violence, often a hostile patriarchy and workplace challenges. Overall employment numbers and labour force participation among women remains abysmally low. Madhukar from XLRI told me, “Jobs in the formal sector are still a small part of total workforce employment; 90 per cent plus are still employed in unorganized sector—or even if we add the contract jobs, then the figure would be around 83-84 per cent. At least three-fourth of women’s employment comes from the informal sector, notwithstanding the fact the women in the farming sector, which is a huge number, are not even counted. My reading is that the economic reforms haven’t made any positive or discernable impact on women in the unorganized sector—or if we take the women’s workforce (in formal and informal sector) as a whole.”
Madhukar is not alone. Neera Saggi, chairperson of CARE India and a former bureaucrat, told me, “These gains—higher education, political participation, better legislation, and better health indicators—have not translated into proportionate increase of women in the workforce. On the contrary, it is disturbing to note that India is one of the few countries where the rate of participation of women in the workforce has drastically declined. It fell from 33.7 per cent in 1991 to 27 per cent in 2012, according to UN gender statistics. The situation has adversely impacted rural women, where, with the loss of employment in sunset industries, they have not been able to find opportunities in sunrise industries. In urban areas, educated women are opting out of full-time employment because of our inability to provide institutionalized social support mechanisms like day care, crèches etc. This is compounded by the lack of adequate transport, and concerns around personal security.”
The issues raised by Neera and Madhukar are valid and show how long a way we still have to travel for India to be a better country for women, notwithstanding the progress made in the last 25 years. A question that comes back again and again is whether the progress was due to economic reforms or it just happened as it would have happened anyway. I do not think there were any specific reform measures that worked just for women or were targeted at women alone. Luis Miranda, chairman of CORO and Centre for Civil Society, told me, “There has clearly been a huge change in women’s empowerment over the past 25 years. But I struggle to see if this was because of economic reforms or because of reforms in society. I can’t think of many specific economic reforms—I am not saying that there aren’t any; just that I can’t recall if there are any—that have impacted women.” IIM-Kolkata alumnus Pallavi Deb Burman echoed his views, “I suspect I have been impacted by the economic reforms or progress in the same fashion as any other individual. I can’t recall any particular part of my life that has been specifically impacted due to women-specific reforms or, to put it differently, that I have been included or excluded due to my gender.”
Meenakshi Ramani, investment banker from Chennai, has similar views. She said, “I cannot think of any aspect of economic reforms in the last 25 years which has specifically affected me as a woman, as differentiated from Indians in general!” Tongue in cheek, she added, “This is testimony to the privileged, non-sexist, egalitarian environment in which I was brought up, educated and lived. Perhaps a day would come when every woman in India (and indeed, elsewhere!) is able to make a similar statement.” Unfortunately, education, better information and prosperity have not made as much of a dent as it should have on a patriarchal society’s attitude towards women and on gender-based violence.
I think reforms and the opening up of the Indian economy may not have had anything specific for women, but women have been big beneficiaries of the opportunities that appeared. It was not just that MNCs and new-generation Indian private sector companies were more friendly towards women, or the portals of education or financial independence—even by way of opening of bank accounts in their own name—became accessible to women, but also a whole lot of cultural import gave women a newfound confidence, a voice and a changed worldview of their role and position in society. Reforms have certainly accelerated the changes that may have happened anyway, and we will now see the rise of half a billion girls and women in India over the next decade. As Somshukla told me, “The huge positive surge in the last two decades can only get bigger. Women in India never had it this good!”
Anirudha Dutta is the author of Half A Billion Rising: The Emergence Of The Indian Woman (Rupa Publications). He lives in Mumbai.