Time to Bank on Women: Empowering Indian Women Workforce

Posted on May 4, 2010 in Society

Utsav Prashar:

Gandhi ji had once remarked, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And, as we can see, that change is finally happening, albeit slowly, but surely. Particularly in the economic sector, women of highest calibre and talent are leading the pack. They dared to dream and thus achieved what we can call “phenomenal success.” Their charisma spans countries to continents, individual to generations. Still, they are concerned enough for women who are less fortunate than they are.

The status of Indian women is analyzed in the light of historical and contemporary indicators. A series of reforms is urgently needed for the upliftment of women workforce. In subsequent section, short descriptions of woman achievers from different fields are given. Data from various sources are collected to give an empirical evidence of the actual condition of women in formal and informal sectors. Finally examples from different banks are cited to bring to notice the practices and innovations adopted by them to help the poor and powerless women workers of India. In a way we hope that these practices, if adopted by the Government machinery, will go a long way in ensuring the dignified life for Indian women.

“Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of the equality, development and peace.”

+ 4th World Conference on Women, 15th September 1995

This clarion call of the Beijing Declaration (1995) was expected to be a yardstick on which the efficacy and sincerity of developmental efforts, concerning a very special being called woman, to be undertaken by nations of the world could be judged. It has been more than 14 years since this declaration was avowed to be adopted by the world community and India was also a signatory to this cause. To say that the position and status of women world over in general and India in particular has undergone a sea change in consonance with the spirit of that declaration would be a trifle of an exaggeration. Although inspirational success stories about women’s accomplishments in virtually every field of activity may adorn the claim of India as a land where the fairer sex has challenged the mythical notion of male superiority and pre-eminence, but essentially the picture is not as rosy as it seems to be. These success stories are few and far between and beneath the illuminance lies a dark world where women still today are fighting for their basic rights, even struggling for their identity and jostling for the deserved space and opportunities within the limits of the superstructure called India. The reasons for this gloomy situation are not far to seek. But one factor that contains the crux of this dismal scenario is that at no point of time in the history of women empowerment in India, the substantial quantitative change has been overlapped by an equally potent qualitative change in the lives of women. Despite all sorts of policy measures, action- plans and laws in place, the aspired gender equality and true empowerment of women remains an elusive dream for India. We may boast ourselves as the proud citizens of the second fastest growing economy on the planet and a responsible power of the international arena but one reality still continues to be a blot on our image of an ever progressive and inclusive nation. The undeniable truth that almost half of the billion plus population of this country is still not treated at par with the other half is a fact that demands urgent attention and action rather than protracted contemplation. “She” is still sexually harassed at workplaces, molested on roads, raped at houses and hotels, subjected to violence at homes and exposed to humiliation and denigration almost everywhere. The journey from cradle to grave for her is an extremely arduous one dotted by violence, discrimination, exploitation and every possible form of affliction that renders her life diametrically opposite to the very idea of qualitative human existence. She is born and dies as a second-rate citizen and hardly gets what she actually deserves as a daughter, mother, wife, or a worker. She has transgressed every barrier imposed upon her by the skewed and degraded mentality of the society and proved her mettle beyond every possibility but, ironically, still continues to face the flak for swimming against the tide. Today, India stands at such a point where opportunities are galore for the realization of her cherished dream of becoming an economic and military superpower but here she has to take a tough call- whether she has to become a superpower devoid of national character or whether she wants to become a nation where women’s “mind is without fear and heads are held high”? It is high time that India shed its age-old inhibitions and embraced the mentality which of the highest possible standard. Women should be an equal partner of man so that the sharing of incompleteness and management of imperfections between the opposites could become possible and the growth bandwagon of India runs on combined enthusiasm and energy of people who have equal and mutual stake in the development of Indian juggernaut across all sectors in the world. This paper attempts at energising the harmonious synergy between the people of opposite sex by advocating greater avenues of development and empowerment of women workforce so that the imbalances and inequalities created in the social equilibrium must be addressed effectively, past wrongs can be undone and women in the real sense could lead a dignified life which she is entitled to, both legally and morally.

Women of Substance: Redefining India

They evoke awe and amazement simultaneously. They are the battle-hardened survivors of hostile environment and adverse circumstances. They are the ordinary souls possessing extraordinary temperament and tenacity. From PepsiCo’s CEO Indira Nooyi to ICICI bank’s MD Chanda Kocchar, from Biocon’s chief Kiran Mazumdar to country executive of ABN Amro NV India Meera H. Sanyal India do have phenomenal women achievers in fields as diverse as IT and consumer goods, banking and biotechnology. They are making notable difference to lives of people and the impact of their work cuts across geographical boundaries and cultures. It is evident by the example of top ranked corporate woman of India i.e. Amrita Patel. She is the chairperson of NDDP, the world’s largest dairy development programme, which involves over 12.4 million farmer families, 117,000 co-operative societies and procures 21.5 million litres of milk every day. Similarly, the country head of JP Morgan India, Kalpana Morparia is an ideal role model for thousands of women who aspire to traverse their own chosen paths. Ranked as one of the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, she has also been instrumental to the evolution of the ICICI Bank from a development institution to being India’s largest private and overall second largest bank. In her own words: “My life is an ode to Indian womanhood, whether a woman is married or not, a mother or not, she is an individual in her own right” (In Karmic Divas by Prerna Kaul Mishra).

Chitra Ramakrishna, Deputy MD of NSE, is another woman at the helm of affairs of an organization which frames rules for essentially male-dominated world of stock markets. Indu Jain, chairperson of the most powerful media group of the country i.e. The Times group, defies the inverse relation of age and work. At 76, she manages the $4 billion enterprise quite efficiently and actively. Leena Nair, executive director of HUL and also the first woman on its management committee, is showing enough substance in shaping the largest and fastest growing consumer goods company of India. The MD of HP India, Neelam Dhawan is another outstanding woman achiever. Prior to her association with HP, she was also the chief of Microsoft India. Her appointment by the world’s biggest software and technology giants reinforces the fact that Indian women do possess the talent and skill to consistently deliver results at highest levels. As a matter of fact, HP has been proactive in retaining women, who account for 30% of its workforce today.

Well, the above mentioned success stories might give an impression that it is only the MBA holders from ivy-league colleges, highly educated and privileged women who dreamt big and accomplished even greater. But the pleasing truth is that the edifice of woman entrepreneurship in India owes its existence not only to the efforts of the class of women described above but also to the sincere endeavour and devotion of unsung and unknown women workers. The astounding success story of Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad is a model worthy enough to emulate and imitate for harnessing the women’s strength in the realm of entrepreneurial dynamics. The brain child of seven semi-literate Gujarati housewives from Bombay, the enterprise was started with a seed capital of Rs.80. Today, Lijjat has a turnover of Rs 500 crore and providing employment to over 42,000 women. “Lijjat doesn’t turn its women into millionaires, but it is the realization of dignified self employment that is its success”, says Arun Srivastav, a freelance reporter.

In the same spirit, one organization which is also bringing qualitative change to the lives of women is SEWA. The powerlessness of women in informal economy has shaped the lifelong efforts of Ela R. Bhatt, the founder of this association. SEWA’s work is improving the lives of over a million direct members and about 5-6 million others in India. The SEWA family includes a trade union of self employed women, with 1.1 million members and a cooperative bank.

Empowering The Workforce

“Empowerment is an active multidimensional process which should enable women to realise their full identity and power in all spheres of life. It would consist of greater access to knowledge and resources, greater autonomy in decision- making, greater ability to plan their lives, have greater control over the circumstances that influence their lives and free them from shackles on them by custom, belief and practice” [Balbir Soni (ed) 2001, p.28]. Thus, in essence, it can be safely presumed that empowerment means the widest possible expansion of the spectrum of choices for women. It does not only mean the improvement of working conditions or increase in employment avenues for woman but it is the very concept of “control” over the factors that influence her life, determines and defines her empowerment.

The 500 million plus population of Indian women equals the combined population of many a developed countries like Germany, Canada or France. The generation of gainful employment opportunities and to create conditions for holistic development of such an enormous workforce within a short period is, if not impossible, next to impossible. The administrative and management architecture of India has also seldom endeavoured in earnest to tap the untapped potential of such a big human resource. Even 50% of this workforce, working 6 hours a day, can contribute 150 crore hours of labour daily to the Indian economy, an astronomical figure by any standard. But available statistics do not show anything which can signify the proper use of such an immense possibility.

A high percentage of females, belonging to the age-group of 25-59, are out of labour force (47-57%). The irony is that significant percentage of females who are out of labour force also have high educational qualifications (68% are graduates and 53% are post graduates).

As majority of Indian workforce (comprising both males and females) is distributed within informal sector (out of total workforce of 458 million, 395 million was in informal sector), it is imperative that economic policy-measures of the country must be framed prioritizing the requirements and demands of the workers of this sector, especially women. Consisting of 93% percent of total workforce, “informal sector” (the term was first used by Keith Hart) is regarded as a group of household enterprises or unincorporated enterprises owned by householders that include: informal own account enterprises, which may employ contributing family workers and employees on an occasional basis and enterprises of informal employers, which employ one or more on a continuous basis.

As per the report of NCEUS titled “Report on definition and statistical issues relating to Informal economy”, out of total workforce of 457.46 million, majority is in agricultural sector followed by services and industries. Within agriculture, almost 98% is in informal sector. The percentage is around 72 for services followed by 70 in case of industries. Again, women constitute 60% of informal sector. This implies that although female labour participation rate has increased, they are being absorbed more and more in low skilled and low paying jobs. The average annual income of a working woman in India is $1,185, less than one- third of what a man earns ($3,698) in the country, according to a World Economic Forum survey.

Another sad aspect about women’s work in India is self-employment. According to the 62nd Round of Survey of NSSO, in the age group of 20-50 years the average percentage of self employed women is nearly 62% of total self employed workers. But it doesn’t reflect the entrepreneurial quality of Indian women. The idea of self employment in India is more of a mere survival strategy where individuals meet their basic needs from their own resources. In most cases, the form of self employment that India encompasses does not assure a household of food security, income and social security. As a result, low-income women workers especially in the informal sector form one of the most vulnerable groups in the Indian economy. The reasons for their vulnerability are — (a) irregular work, (b) low economic status, (c) little or no bargaining power, (d) lack of control over earnings, (e) need to balance paid work with care for children and homework, (f) little or no access to institutional credit, training and information, and (g) lack of assets. Unequal gender relations assume a very important role in defining their insecurities. In fact, the forces which control and sustain the vulnerability of women are institutionalized in society and in the economy.

Banking Industry and Women Empowerment

It seems that banking sector is clearly stealing the march from its contemporary sectors in aggressive hiring of woman employees. According to a Report of Mckinsey & Co. Titled “Indian Banking 2010”, the banking sector could account for over 7.7% of GDP with over rupees 7500 billion in market cap. In all of this, the sector could generate employment to the tune of 1.5 million. With a combined workforce hovering around a million mark constituting supporting staff to executive level members in the board rooms, banking industry in India has really come of age for women. Right from the nationalisation of banks during the 1970s to the emergence of private and foreign banks in late 1990s, this sector has embraced the fairer sex with open arms and been extremely pro-active in adopting policy measures aimed at greater and fruitful participation of women in this industry. Women, too, have taken employment in banks on a priority basis since the time of their active joining of organized jobs. The possible reasons for this phenomenon can be zeroed on factors like gender sensitive work culture, favourable conditions for personal development, relatively egalitarian environment and flexibility in timings. The availability of various growth related opportunities at every rung of the functioning of this institutionalized financial entity has also contributed to its emergence as one of the most sought after career among women. According to Accord Group (India) Pvt. Ltd’s director Sonal Agarwal: “Banking was traditionally viewed as a safe 9 to 5, low-stress job with good perks and comfortable working conditions… It had attractive perks such as housing, soft loans, structured working hours, maternity policies. There are no “plant” jobs and the environment is women-friendly. Also, men would traditionally opt for engineering, sciences and CA qualifications, while many women were drawn to and fared well at the probationary officer exams. Hence, banking traditionally employed larger number of women than say, engineering companies. Many of these women would have risen to the top now.”

Women visibility in banking seems impressive. This is not to suggest that women have not done well for themselves in other areas. Just that banking apparently seems to be an area in which they have fared particularly well. As many as 54% of the women CEOs are, according to executive search firm EMA Partners, in financial services. “Amongst private and foreign banks, women almost outnumber men. This has been helped in no mean measure by women from ICICI Bank who have joined other financial institution in recent times;” said EMA Partners managing associate K. Sudharshan.

Chanda Kochhar is the most well known woman bank professional of India. Ranked 20th Most Powerful Woman in the world, she is the CEO & MD of India’s largest private and overall second largest bank ICICI. Under Kochhar’s leadership ICICI started retail business in July 2000 and emerged as the largest retail financer in India.

Padamshree winner and a prominent personality of the corporate world, Naina Lal Kidwai is the first woman to guide the functioning of a foreign bank in India. At present she is working as the Group General Manager and Country Head of HSBC India. The MD & CEO of Axis Bank, Shikha Sharma is another ace of Indian Banking.

Conclusion & Strategies

In spite of having the best policies, plans and related mechanism there still exists a yawning gap between the goals of empowerment of women workforce and its actual realization. Government made action plans may have lofty and idealistic element of intention but somewhere down the line, the strategies adopted to deal the situation lacks the desired efficacy and clinical precision. The impressive growth profile of women workers in the banking sector, not only in India but the world over, can be traced to a number of factors which we think can be successfully replicated to improve the pathetic condition of the women workforce in other sectors, particularly the informal one.

1. As women in informal sectors are the most vulnerable section of workers in India, the concept of micro-credit which was aggressively pursued by Grameen Bank of Bangladesh for the upliftment of poor, especially women, is a worthy example to follow. Unlike conventional banks, Grameen Bank gives collateral free loans to women on a priority basis (96% borrowers are women). The system of this bank is based on the idea that poor have skills that are under-utilized. A group based credit approach is applied which utilizes peer-pressure within the group to ensure that borrowers follow through and use caution in conducting their financial affairs with strict discipline, ensuring repayment eventually and allowing the borrowers to develop good credit understanding. As a result, micro-credit has reached 15 million poor borrowers in Bangladesh and thus 56% of borrowers’ families have crossed the poverty line.

2. In the organised sectors like IT, Marketing etc. the biggest problem for women is the difficulty which they encounter regarding maternity leave and childcare. During maternity leave the woman employee gets virtually disconnected from the developments and dynamics of her job and as a result she has to, kind of, reinvent herself to suit the demands of the work. This contributes to a high dropout rate among them. To tackle this issue the sectors can adopt the strategy of Erste Bank AG of Austria. Erste dicusses re-entry plans with its woman employees prior to their leave. During their leave, they are kept updated of the developments in the company by the weekly forwarding of internal announcements. Additionally, twice a year, they are invited to an “information afternoon” about recent events in the company. Before re-entry, they are offered seminars concerning the individual management of family and work. In addition, every such employee (and new parent) is offered parental leave until the child enters school. In order to ease organisation of childcare, Erste Bank AG has an arrangement with the Employee and Family Service, a private company (see http://www.employee.at). This service provides support in the organisation of childcare and care of elderly, consulting in family and work matters and providing mediators for private conflict.

3. The Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, Mhaswad is another shining example which demonstrates the remarkable organisation of the economically and socially most insecure women within the framework of financial services. This bank offers weekly and fortnightly credit and saving schemes to its customers, most of whom are daily or weekly wage earners. Unlike any other bank, it also provides daily loan for buying vegetables or fruits. Today the bank has created 96% clients and 16,720 women entrepreneurs in the region around Mhaswad and its clientele consist of poor women with annual incomes averaging 22,000 rupees.

The model provided by these banks, if adopted by Government agencies will surely make substantial change in the lives of poor and unprivileged women workers of India since “the empowerment per se may not be liberating for women unless these women are able to exercise control over the proceeds from their employment. In fact, it is necessary for economic and political empowerment to work together if any real material or non-material change is to come about in the lives of women working in the informal economy.”

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.

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