In India, women’s workforce participation has long been in decline. Business’s contribution to equality is more important than ever.

India is now the fifth largest economy in the world. It plays an increasingly confident role on the world stage: in 2023, it holds the presidency of the G20 group of leading economies. Its increasing economic health is much to be celebrated – yet there are profound questions to be asked about whether India’s growth is inclusive enough for women.

The astonishing reality is that India today has a lower level of female participation in the workforce than at any point since 1990, as World Bank data reveals. In 2021, just 19% of women were active in the workforce, compared to 30% in 1990 and a high point of 32% in 2005. By contrast, 70% of men were economically active in 2021.

Can India get out of reverse gear and find a way to accelerate for women?

The lasting power of traditional attitudes

The story of women’s participation in Indian society and its economy is a complex one, set in the big cities and in the vast rural regions. Women participate fully in areas ranging from education to sports, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology. They have held high offices including those of president, prime minister, speaker of the Lok Sabha (equivalent to the House of Commons), and so on.

Yet women are still largely invisible in the boardrooms and the C-suite teams of India’s businesses. There are grounds for concern that progress has stalled or gone into reverse since the pandemic: a 2021 IBM India report found fewer women in the executive pipeline than in 2019.

The challenges that women in India face are often the same irrespective of their social standing, education or caste. India remains a traditional country, full of customs and rituals, where the role of women is mostly within the household. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked states to promote flexible working to retain women in the labour force, but there has been slow progress. Women who join the workforce as doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers or managers face the hard reality of not being paid fairly and losing out to their male colleagues for promotions. The World Inequality Report 2022 for India shows that men earn 82% of the labour income in India, women just 18%. The government needs to offer stronger incentives for better pay, training, skills and potentially job quotas to encourage the hiring of women. Oxfam India’s Discrimination Report 2022 found that a sizeable segment of qualified women are unwilling to join the labour market because of “family responsibilities” and the need to conform to social norms. Long hours or working late is often impossible, and even when women are in work, they are still widely expected to shoulder the full responsibilities of running the family home.

Businesses committed to change

In the face of those traditional attitudes, the role of the multinationals and national companies found in the big cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi are critical. Among those firms, there is widespread commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I) – in fact, arguably more than is found in other parts of the world. One study by Mercer highlighted that 74% of firms reported that their senior executives were actively engaged in D&I initiatives, above the global average of 66%. Yet many problems persist, for instance in career progression. Take the tech sector: female representation was 43% at entry levels – making it one of the better-performing industries – but just 12-17% at the managerial level and 4-8% at executive levels.

Forward-thinking organizations are making progress to change that picture. IBM India has launched a programme to support women in leadership roles, while Accenture launched the Vaahini platform, open to all, which celebrates women employees while sharing strategies that can help women carve out their careers. Mastercard India’s Give Me 5 initiative, inspired by the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal, is focused on driving an inclusive approach to business. Mastercard recognizes that when all employees feel safe and supported, regardless of their gender or age, they are more likely to stay and perform well.

Indian national companies are forging ahead too. Tech giant Infosys is strengthening its gender diversity via its dedicated Women in Leadership programme, while championing women’s advancement through #IAmTheFuture. The famous Tata Group has made clear its commitment to revolutionize its work culture by promoting policies designed to empower women employees and address the lack of women in leadership positions. The growing number of Millennials and young women in the Indian workforce means that organizations need to provide an inclusive workplace to attract and retain the best talent. But they still face challenges such as the lack of sufficient sanitation facilities in the workplace, poor annual leave provisions, and a lack of engagement on the darkest of problems facing working women in India – the continued prevalence of sexual assault. Women brave enough to raise complaints in the workplace often find themselves left unsupported by their employers, who often poorly understand the legal protections in place since 2013. While the number of reported crimes by women is steadily increasing, many cases go unreported due to fear and societal stigma.

Are businesses following the most impactful approach? “Corporates would do well to have inclusion precede diversity,” says Sarita Bahl, a coach and thought leader on corporate social responsibility in Mumbai. “Challenges arise when there is no structured framework or roadmap with easily identifiable and specific measures. The focus needs to move from tick-box exercises of diversity-driven hiring practices to concrete career progression plans for women to be future leaders.” That has implications for all leaders, adds Bahl. “The very ethos of inclusion and diversity in corporates is driven from the top, but we all need to champion it.”

The changing status of working women in India requires a mindset shift in society, to rethink the role of women: to support a move from homemakers to professionals. This is not an easy task. It needs a certain sensitivity to navigate India’s cultural diversity. Yet change is happening, influenced by social media, government initiatives and organizations who are actively taking steps to drive equality for women in the workplace. It must continue – because we know that when women thrive, businesses thrive, communities thrive and, ultimately, economies thrive.

India is one of the most important countries in the global economy. It now needs a robust, holistic approach to accelerate towards gender parity.