Women in India: how to get excited by slow progress

by Rebecca Lewis, Co-CEO & Partner

Over the last decade or so I have had the pleasure of frequently spending time with our India research team, led by Vatsal Mody in Mumbai, often conducting ‘household visits’, basically sitting in someone’s front room chatting to them about their lives, spending and aspirations. Whilst we have had a research office in India for 20 years, our team recognise that five Mumbai-based finance professionals do not come close to representing the diversity of the Indian population. We use these on-the-ground household meetings to deepen our understanding of market share trends and put flesh on the bone of cultural and regional differences (there are 28 states, 120+ major languages spoken and over a thousand regional festivals celebrated every year in India[1]).

With Arisaig’s intern Sahana on the team this summer, we could dig even deeper into the lived experiences of the average Indian household – particularly, in this case, the strikingly common but largely unheard stories of young women in rural communities striving for even just the same education and employment opportunities afforded to their male peers. Sahana has spent the last few weeks conducting interviews in her hometown in Kumarapatnam, a small town of c. 7,000 residents in south-west India. Sahana herself has been incredibly successful navigating the state school system and after becoming a Karta Fellow, she has received a scholarship to complete a degree in economics at Queens University in Canada. Her journey is clearly still the exception not the rule in India, as her research showed us:

Education is indeed for all

The first main takeaway was a very welcome one: the pushback against girls schooling has waned significantly in India in recent years. There is growing acceptance from that having an educated daughter is as important as an educated son. This is reflected in female secondary school enrolment, which has more than doubled from c.37% in 2000 to more than 75% today[2]. Indeed, in my earlier conversations with some mothers on this topic the subject of their daughters’ education has stirred evident pride, perhaps to some degree a relief that their own exclusion from opportunity has not repeated down the generations.

If you aren’t going to be a doctor or engineer, then parental support can wane

It’s not all plain sailing though, and there are some continuing obstacles for women advancing through education. Outside of the more proven educational pathways to success in India, for example qualification to become a doctor or engineer, the headwinds can be greater. Non-traditional choice of courses, such as business administration or designing, would not necessarily get the same support with the sense of if you can’t hit the ‘pedigree’ professions, then it’s not worth the effort.

Marriage is the main decision point, and the choice of husband determines outcomes

It was with a heavy heart when I heard Sahana point, quite pragmatically, to the fact that marriage remains a key part of any development journey. At this point, the decision-maker for a wife’s progress in education or a career beyond, moves from being the woman’s parents to being the husband and in-laws. Therefore, opportunities depend on whether the family you marry into has a modern mindset. Sahana cited that if it is a traditional family, a newly married women is likely to be held back from further educational progress.

Educated families want the same for their children

It is clear that there is still a permission element to further education, or getting a job, and these conversations are always easier in families where education levels are generally higher. This bodes well for future generations where family systems have all moved up the education ladder. In other words, female participation in education is likely to be self-reinforcing over time; indeed, this is the pattern observed in other Asian countries which enjoyed rapid development over the last century.

Evolving family structures are another tailwind

Sahana pointed to the natural evolution of family structures as being helpful. Nuclear families (where couples live in a separate house from their parents) can have a more modern mindset, in comparison to more traditional Indian household comprising ‘joint’ families. Today, nuclear families make up 50% of Indian households and in the it is estimated that 40% of women are employed. We know that the overall female participation in the workforce is 25% and so this implies that only 10% of women in joint families are employed. The readthrough is that when families are smaller, women get more agency.

Childcare is a struggle and can limit opportunities to move for work

In the UK we battle with the trade-off between childcare and work. For example, my wife stays at home and looks after our twin daughters as her job as a dental nurse would not cover the cost of childcare. We are lucky I have a profession that allows us to support a household on a single wage. In India, ignoring affordability, the simple availability of childcare facilities itself is a challenge. Therefore there is a need to rely on a joint family, with grandparents taking care of children if both parents are working. This is a tricky situation, since traditionally minded in-laws are not so supportive of women working. Anecdotally, our team has seen working mothers’ parents helping with childcare to enable their daughters to work.  Of course, when rural women move to cities, this safety net is removed and adds to the complexity of charting your own course.

Generational shifts are happening

All the headwinds aside, there is clearly a generational shift in the way of thinking when it comes to these issues. India is not alone in this regard and perceptions of women in the workplace, in politics and in sport are changing globally (albeit painfully slowly). Sahana cited the example of sanitary towels, which will always be viewed as uncomfortable by the older generation more accustomed to cloth pads. Many of this generation of women would not go to certain parts of their house or village if they were menstruating. Change is sometimes forced by necessity. Even older women who usually use cloths during menstruation prefer the disposable nature of sanitary towels when they travel. We know this from our own investment in a sanitary towel business, which saw sales drop during covid when a key segment of their consumers was locked down and no longer taking long bus rides.

It’s all about agency

Regardless of the end goal in terms of education or employment, the key point Sahana made was that it’s all about agency, being in control of your own destiny. This can come in many different ways. She pointed to many examples in her village of women building MSME businesses from their own front room – sewing or selling milk. This helps to improve living standards and build wealth but importantly also builds independence. Autonomy gives you a seat at the table. Having an independent income can also help to circumvent being encased in traditional systems. While it is a tragedy this is necessary, many mothers will build savings independent from the family budget in order to support their own daughter’s education. This sort of action can help ‘break the cycle’. Gold is a typical savings vehicle, with many companies offering borrowing against these assets to help women support the cost of education.

There is help from the top, in subtle but important ways

Whilst progress can be slow to resolve structural issues, there have been a few subtle but important changes. Those following India will know that there has been a huge push to ensure everyone in India, including women, has a bank account. Whilst many of these accounts lie dormant, with any money earned by a woman ending up in the husband’s account, the government’s social security distributions related to cooking gas and other benefits, have been purposefully delivered into women’s bank accounts. This encourages a change in perception in terms of the role of women in managing their own finances and the finances of the household.

Progress from the outside can seem depressingly slow

Despite the anecdotal examples of progress from Sahana, the overarching data has been moving in the wrong direction. 25% of women participate in the workforce today, which is a drop from 32% in 1990. This, in turn, compares unfavourably with global peers but particularly places like China where it nearly double at 62%. [3] It is hard to imagine a scenario where productivity growth starts to fly in India and women stay at home.

Is enough being done by the government to address perceptions of women by men in India? Modi’s national programme called Beti Bachao (Save our Girls) caught the headlines, but can this really challenge social norms whereby women are treated as second class citizens? As Sahana rightly pointed out, progress has its foundations in education, but is education enough? Even educated Indian women are often trained into silence by a culture where women are not equals in the household. These societal norms run deep.

I would be lying to say that some of Sahana’s feedback about the opportunities for women in traditional households didn’t make me hang my head. The idea of discouragement for women’s further education is especially painful to hear as I am a teacher by training. What is notable, however, from Sahana’s perspective was there was a real sense of optimism for change and positivity about progress from women in her village. Many of them have little to lose. The reality is that whilst change might not be moving fast enough, young women will enjoy far greater agency and freedoms than their mothers and in turn, they will be empowered to ensure that their daughters feel the same way. This sense of aspiration drives all parts of the economy and all types of domestic demand that we aim to capture with our investments. And so, whilst the high point of my day was Sahana’s talk, it will play out through positive investment performance long into the future.

You can read Sahana’s full report here.

[1] Source: https://www.asiahighlights.com/india/festivals-and-celebrations; https://ptranslate.com/blog/indian-languages/;

[2] Source: World Bank data

[3] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/india-economic-boom-is-overhyped-by-ashoka-mody-2023-07


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