Bridge Gender Gap, Engender the Workplaces at Top Priority
Interviewed by Mahima Sharma
UN Women is strengthening its Stance Towards Better Gender Equity & Inclusiveness, Women Safety, Digital Literacy and Financial Education
Intro: This week on Socio-Economic Voices we have Kanta Singh, Deputy Country Representative, UN Women India. She answers some quick and strong questions on how can gender parity in wages, workplaces as well as top management be done away with, alongwith better and safe work atmosphere for women. Prior to joining UN Women, Kanta Singh’s role in UNDP India was focused on implementing and supporting programmes that address the access to justice and economic rights of women. Thus, in an exclusive interaction with Senior Journalist Mahima Sharma, Ms Singh shares some deeper insights into what she is doing at UN Women with her team towards betterment of women inclusivity and their rights in India. Take a read…
MS: What are your goals towards the next few years for India as it's Deputy Country Representative at the UN Women? And what kind of government policy support would be needed to fulfil the same?
KS: One of our foremost goals is to provide direct technical support to the government to make sure that national response strategies meet women’s and girls’ needs. Secondly, we would continue to focus on priority areas that are fundamental to women's equality and gender equality. Thirdly, we would like to make the India office stronger in terms of resources, both HR and financial resources.
Over the past few years, the Government of India has introduced several schemes that focus on women and aims to provide them with their due social dignity and ensure ways of earning. As the past of Indian society is filled with stances of gender inequality, I am glad that the Government has come forward to bring equality at every level, empower women and uplift child education.
With regards to support, we would like to have the government’s support in implementing the policies and programmes better. We should be able to play a convening role where we bring in all stakeholders together to have a dialogue with them.
KS: On the scale of 1 to 10, India can be ranked 7. I say this because I feel we are constantly evolving. Our country has made great strides in terms of education for women. As per the All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20, the gross enrolment ratio of female students stands at 27.3 per cent, more than that of male students, which is 26.9 per cent. This indicates an overall increase of 18 per cent in the gross enrolment ratio of female students in higher education from 2015-16 to 2019-20. There is also an increase in the number of women in India who have opted for STEM courses from 10,02,707 in 2017-18 to 10,56,095 in 2019-2020 which is more that many developed countries as well.
In healthcare, according to a collaborative study conducted by the researchers at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the Indian Statistical Institute, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, and Harvard University, gender-based discrimination harms women’s health in India. The experts found that only 37 per cent of women got access to health care, as compared to 67 per cent of men. The Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) of India has reduced from 130 per 100,000 live births in SRS 2014-16 to 113 per 100,000 live births in SRS 2016-18 but it is still high. Healthcare sector for women needs more investment. We need a higher part of GDP to be spent on healthcare.
Social development – India has developed to a great extent in many fields but is still far behind in the field of gender equality. The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 places India at 135 out of 146 countries. Though, in comparison to the year before, where we ranked 140 out of 156, India has slightly improved its position. However, the gender gap persists. This is primarily because of two critical areas which are still unaddressed – the female workforce participation in India which is among the lowest in the world and continues to fall. Secondly, the women in decision and policy making especially in bodies like parliament, state assemblies are underrepresented. The situation has even worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These hidden yet pervasive gender inequalities and its effects are likely to reverberate for years to come. The pandemic and its preventive measures are driving a disproportionate increase in women’s unemployment as compared to men. This has resulted in decreasing women’s overall working time while they are also dealing with an aggravated care burden. The high level of informality of women’s jobs in labour markets has made them vulnerable to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
According to the World Economic Forum 2021 Global Gender Gap report, women’s estimated earned income is only one-fifth of men’s, which puts India among the bottom 10 globally.1
There continues to exist an under-representation of women in leadership roles. This, coupled with the inherent bias towards hiring men, citing multiple reasons, has kept female participation low. The share of women in senior and managerial positions also remains low, with only 17.1 per cent of board seats in India held by women in 2022 and only 3.6 per cent of board chairs are women. 2
As per the World Bank, India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. Women spend 9.8 times more time than men on unpaid work (NITI Aayog 2017) as against the global average of 2.6 times (report by UN Women).
Besides, women also face violence at their workplaces, public and private spaces. All this raises the critical question of how we can make corporate policies and practises more gender sensitive and gender inclusive. Over the years, gender-based violence, has increasingly come to be recognized as a serious problem at the national and international level, not only for women but also for the attainment of equality, development, and peace. It is an extreme manifestation of gender inequity, targeting women and girls because of their subordinate social status in the society. It can take forms of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, and in all of its manifestations, it can have serious implications for a woman’s sexual and reproductive health.
The government and businesses must join hands to empower women economically. This will give a big boost to GDP as well. There has to be more investment towards bringing gender equality and this starts from one’s home. Starting from property rights to access to decision making in the house to creating safe public spaces are some of the reforms needed to move India up in the gender gap index ranking.
It is a national loss if we don’t bring women at par and don’t make them a part of development. Focusing on women empowerment and gender equality should be a national interest.
MS: POSH laws are there in place towards work place sexual harassment but internal hindrances or shaming of women makes them restrain from making a complaint. Same applies to workplace mental harassment as well. In your opinion, what kind of workplace changes are required to ensure women can stand up for their rights in a better way? Will UN Women help create some impactful awareness or campaign towards tackling this issue in a better way?
KS: POSH is very powerful and that is primarily because it has been designed by women.
However, many companies still do not have an Internal committee (IC’s) as mandated by the act. Awareness on the provision of the act too is quite low among companies. We do obersve sordid cases of harrasement and gender discrimination at workplace.
In most cases, I have observed that women face a lot of hindrances in case they come to the forefront and complain. The employees often single out the women who complain. Stigmatisation begins and no one wants to engage with the woman who has filed a complaint. There is a constant belief that the complaint filed is actually false and they are only being filed to jeopardise the reputation of the organisation.
In many instances, if one woman faces such consequences in the workplace, other women back out due to the repercussions. This is not just in work place, but in other public spaces, school buses etc, where if a girl has faced any sexual harassment, her family will make sure she doesn’t travel rather that filing a complaint or taking any action.
I would also like to highlight that women have always faced some or the other kind of sexual harassment but we don’t see men coming out and talking about it. There is a certain amount of brotherhood where a man will always stand by a man. The man does not share sexual harassment situations with his peers, colleagues or families or confess about any such case that he might have witnessed. Thus, it is very important for more men to come in the forefront and speak up about sexual harassment.
POSH has also resulted in companies employing less women and having more men. However, things are changing. Organisations are cognizant of how women add value in more ways than one within the organisations. It has been observed that companies have seen a growth trajectory with more women employees on board. I am positive that women will find their way!
As UN Women, we partner with the Government of India and State Governments, UN agencies, civil society organizations and other institutions to find ways to prevent violence against women and girls. Prevention is still the most cost-effective way to stop the impact of violence and reduce the public costs of supporting survivors.
As part of UN Women’s comprehensive approach, we also work with partners to enhance data collection and analysis to provide a better understanding of the nature, magnitude, and consequences of violence against women and girls. Data collection and analysis also helps UN Women, and our partners understand what works and doesn’t work to address this violence.
Sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces is a significant barrier to equitable development as it restricts mobility and access to services such as education, healthcare, and civic amenities. For more than 10 years, UN Women has implemented our global initiative, Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces.
In India, the focus has been on widening the use of public spaces by women and increasing autonomous mobility of women and girls in cities. We are now expanding the methodology to improve safety for women in sectors such as the tea industry in Assam and the textile industry in Tamil Nadu.
As UN Women, we do host POSH training for organisations to help them understand the act and how it helps these organisations.
In Madhya Pradesh, UN Women is collaborating with the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board, to support the ‘Safe Tourism Destination for Women in Madhya Pradesh’ programme. The programme brings together State Departments, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), hoteliers, travel associations, to develop a safe environment for women travellers, and to improve service quality across 50 tourist destinations in the state. This programme is funded by the Nirbhaya Fund, Government of India with technical support from UN Women India Office.
In Assam, UN Women launched a catalytic programme towards the prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls in six tea estates in Udalguri district. Experiences from this programme contributed to the development of “A Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces”.
UN Women is working a lot with the private sector on Women’s Empowerment Principles. There are 327 companies who have signed up for joining this initiative to advance gender equality – 7 steps that companies have to undertake as part of WEPs (attached) in which creating an enabling working environment for women is one of those steps. As part of our multi-stakeholder engagement, the first task of UN Women is to sensitise the organisations, institutions about gender.
We also convened the Business Sector Advisory Council (BSAC) of 21 of the most powerful business leaders and philanthropists, under the chairmanship of Mr. Deepak Premnarayen. BSAC is part of the global initiative of UN Women towards deepening its private sector engagement to better catalyse and unleash the potential of the private sector towards the achievement of gender equality and women empowerment goals. The Council recognises the critical need for partnership with the private sector to drive women-led economic growth, create jobs, develop and deliver needed goods and services, and promote innovation for more sustainable development solutions.
The BSAC committee has within itself four subcommittees, each based on areas of interventions and partnership. They are MSMEs, Climate Change, Sustainable Finance and Digital and Skilling. Some of the key projects supported by the BSAC currently include integrating women into supply chains, gender responsive procurement, fostering women entrepreneurship and imparting digital skills. These projects have been undertaken with partners like State Departments of Skill Development and Employment, CII, TATA and PRADAN among others.
MS: Cyber security, women and abuse. Your take on the same detailing your views and what kind of awareness as well as precautions are needed at ground level. Is UN women doing some special campaign towards the same? if so please add.
KS: There are growing instances of violence against women in cyber space in the form of cyber bullying, stalking, uploading of objectionable content and threats. Rapid technological advancements, particularly in the field of cyberspace, have ushered in a new era of growth, opportunity, and knowledge. However, the rapid expansion of the internet's user base, the rapid dissemination of mobile information, and the escalating use of social media have all contributed to an increase in crime. Because of its swift and widespread reach, possibility for anonymized use, and low user awareness, this virtual environment mirrors the vulnerabilities that women experience in the real world and, on occasion, makes them worse.
UN Women has partnered with the government in engendering the policies on cyber bullying and cyber crime. We host sessions engaging with women on ground to create awareness about cyber safety policies.
MS: A six-month-old data enlists that employable women jobseekers have risen by five crores over the last five years in India alone. What kind of job opportunities should be created for them and how? Plus, what kind of facilities are needed to ensure that they don't have to quit to manage work and home simultaneously?
KS: As said earlier, women are showing interest in work. They are studying and opting for higher education, going to technical institutions, management institutions and financial independence has drawn women to study. So though, more and more women are getting ready to work, the workplace doesn’t seem to be ready. We are not creating jobs, even for men. It is extremely critical to create jobs without any bifurcations for jobs of men and women. Both men and women should be able to take up any job. Instead of having more women in any specific sector, there should be more women in every sector.
Private sector needs to be sensitised to this important point on national development where women should be 50 per cent of the talent pool that is currently not being used. Private sector should be equipped to onboard talent based on their requirement and not gender. Private sector also needs to address women’s safety, gender-based violence. Women need to feel safe whilst moving for work.
Public spaces need to be made safe. There should be safe, affordable and accessible transportation for women. There needs to be end-to-end mobility. Care work has to be shared among family members including men. Women will not be able to work unless she gets support from her family. Another significant change that needs to happen is for parents to now prepare their girl child for work and not for marriage alone.
MS: India needs to Un-gender the work landscape of India to fix less participation of women in the workforce. What's your details take on the same? And how can this be done, considering even before the pandemic hit, only 22.3 per cent of Indian women compared to 79.6 per cent of men participated in the labour market, translating to a gender gap of 72 per cent.
KS: We don’t need to un-gender. We actually need to engender the workplaces. In workplaces, women and men have specific needs and the private sector needs to design the policies, workspaces basis those needs. E.g. washrooms, placement of dustbins in the washrooms, creches etc. Also, the private sector needs to break the gender norms e.g. only women taking leave when a child is unwell etc. Such engendering will bring sensitivities to the workplace.
In terms of reforms, as said earlier, the government has done a lot in terms of introducing policies on equal wages (equal wages act), maternity benefits. Time for the private sector to step up and prepare itself for having more women in the workplace. Additionally, having more women on boards or senior management will definitely help to design more women friendly policies for the workplace.
Last but not the least, the right skills or upskilling will help women get better jobs across sectors.
MS: Many corporates switching to Hybrid work mode, rising pressure on women to balance work life and home life plus less load sharing. What’s your take on the same towards what kind of reforms need to be brought about in this arena?
KS: Workplaces should be sensitive towards both men and women and their needs. They need to address these through training, workshops and sensitise about sharing the responsibilities towards one's families together.
Post COVID-19, it is great to see flexible working hours taking priority. But this should be for both men and women. Both men and women need to share the household work. And flexible working can then really help them. Also, it helps children understand and cope better when they grow older.
Though flexible working is a very good thing to bring more women to jobs but breaking the corporate glass ceiling in India doesn’t guarantee women pay parity. According to IIMA study, Senior women executives earn an average of Rs 85 for every Rs 100 earned by their male counterparts.
There is now evidence to suggest that flexible workplaces can also lead to benefits for our environment by enabling people to choose more sustainable behaviours. For example, working fewer hours or having flexible start and finish times can make it easier for people to take public transport, ride or walk to work. It will also improve congestion on our roads and reduce pollution from car emissions if people don’t have to commute to the office every day.
MS: While women are multitasking humans and the most sought after home managers, still they are kept away from financial planning and related details. What kind of financial education curriculum and reforms are needed in India to upgrade the NEP? And also what steps is UN Women taking in this direction under your ace leadership?
KS: Financial planning and other financial matters, women are not included because women are not earning. The more the women start earning, they will begin to understand the importance of financial planning and they will be part of these conversations and will be able to take part in decision making.
The government cannot play a part in this. To achieve full human potential, developing an equitable and just society, and promoting national development, education is an extremely essential necessity. We need to look into revisiting the education system, the curriculum, and the teaching style for breaking the stereotypes.
NEP is very progressive and brings things that get women at par with men. But a lot depends on the theoretical aspect of the curriculum. We need to invest in human resources who believe in gender equality.
With regards to this, UN Women has been supporting to get more women in the workforce by working along with the government and private sector. We are also working with partners to bring back women in formal education through the Second Chance Education & Vocational Training programme. We are also focusing on upskilling women and supporting digital literacy. More so we are constantly working to help the government and private sector realise how to bring more women get jobs and become financially independent. UN Women is also investing time and money in innovative finance instruments to address gender gaps.
MS: We see very less women in the Tech field and extremely less at the top hierarchy. What all in your opinion would take by large to make this scenario look more positive in the next decade which will see a burgeoning Metaverse?
KS: It is not that women are not interested in tech. Actually there are 40 per cent women who join the technology sector at entry level. However, due to male-dominated organisations, the women do not reach the top level in the technology sector. Men do not want to bring in more women in the senior positions and jeopardise their positions within the system. The start-up system also doesn’t support women the way they support men.
I believe middle management is key to bringing that change within the organisations and we are not spending enough time and resources to gender sensitise them and increase their capabilities.
MS: Gender equality, gender equity and gender inclusiveness - at home, at work and at a global level. What's your personal take on the same?
KS: Gender equity is required to bring gender equality which implies that one needs to address the needs basis the gender – be it men, women or LGBTQi. So, equity is required. If women are out of school, we need to make special provisions to bring them back to school and complete their education. Equal opportunities are very important. To achieve our goal of gender equality, the journey of building gender equity and gender inclusiveness has to be undertaken. We should not differentiate on basis on sex or gender.
MS: UN Women is launching a three- year partnership with a certain social media platform (LinkedIn) to create learning, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for women in Asia Pacific regions. Please share finer details with us, so that it can benefit our student readers as well.
KS: LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, announced that they will be investing USD500,000 (INR3.88 crore) in a three-year, regional partnership with UN Women – the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality – to advance women’s economic empowerment. The project has begun with a pilot in Maharashtra, India to cultivate the digital, soft and employability skills of 2,000 women and present them with a range of career-building opportunities through job fairs, mentoring sessions and peer-to-peer networks. The partnership will give women better access to jobs and the tools they need to fully participate in the formal economy by upskilling them digitally.
Through this cooperation, LinkedIn and UN Women will collaborate to narrow this gap and advance gender equity in the workplace throughout the region and the world.
The Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs), a collection of practical guidelines for businesses on how to advance gender equality and women's empowerment in the workplace, market, and community, will serve as the partnership's guiding principles.
MS: When a child is born, he/she is the focus of all, rather than the mother who should be dealt with apt attention and good medical, post medical care. This neglect often leads to postpartum depression, fatigue and more. How would you and UN women like to raise awareness and bring in the needful reforms in this arena towards better women and child health & development?
KS: Health is not our primary domain of work. However, women’s health is a part of a larger scheme of thematic areas for UN Women. UN Women bring this in the light of the policy makers and reach out to people who can help them through the data to understand how many women are suffering because of these issues and health neglect. We also work towards capacity building of the ground staff such as ASHA workers, Anganwadi workers to bring more responsive care to the women who need it.
MS: The Prime Minister in his Independence Day Speech stated that respect for women is a must. What kind of home reforms are needed by the women, because the onus is always put on the mother, so that she can create a generation where this respect is commanded not demanded?
KS: It is commendable that our Prime Minister is leading the narrative and taking the clarion of women empowerment for the nation. We would like to thank him and applaud his efforts in bringing issues such as health, hygiene for women to the forefront. This also indicates that these things are not addressed in India and that is why our Prime Minister has to bring back the focus on them. This sends out a very strong message to policy makers, ministers who have not been taking women issues seriously in the past.
MS: A soft question at the end, house husband and a working mother, to manage a toddler at home. How must we ungender our thoughts as a society, as a global citizen, in case this scenario comes to our homes as the need of the hour?
KS: I believe it is a matter of choice. If a man willingly wants to be a house husband, the decision should not be determined by social norms. Similarly, if a woman wants to be bread earner, it should be her choice to do so. It should be a matter of choice, a matter of happiness and in the best interest of a child.