Gender Justice In Post-Covid India: ‘Glass Ceiling’ Versus ‘Sticky Doors’

Manish Sabharwal & Rituparna Chakraborty

The post-pandemic economy offers a wonderful opportunity to raise India’s gender justice.

Gender injustice is neither new nor Indian. Tennis legend Billie Jean King’s autobiography chronicles her pursuit of equal pay for men and women after the 1970 Italian open offered $3,500 to the men’s champion and $600 to the women’s champion. In 1972 she met the U.S. Open’s tournament director with carrot and stick; sponsorship funds to bridge the prize gap or a credible threat to boycott next year’s tournament if ignored. He agreed. Today women compete for equal prize money in all four Grand Slam competitions and the world’s best-paid female athlete is routinely a tennis player. India’s women face many challenges beyond equal pay, and we have a wonderful opportunity for sustainable change.

Gender justice is not a one-time intervention but a systemic and sustained dial tone of change. Economist Minouche Shafik’s book What We Owe Each Other insightfully suggests moving away from the metaphor of “glass ceiling” to “sticky doors”. The challenges of gender justice include infant mortality, paid leave, paternal leave, sexist family laws, unequal property rights, differential education, early marriage for girls (20% of the world’s young women were married before the age of 18), patrilocal marriage, polygamy, dowry, son preference, violence against women, and legal indulgence. Covid-19 disproportionately impacted women—their jobs were almost twice as vulnerable to the pandemic as men’s—but the pandemic is a passing shower, not climate change. A possible change agenda would include the more difficult ‘structural’ and more doable ‘flick-of-pen’.

Structural Changes

A Ministry of Women’s Employment’s agenda is not different than the agenda for a Ministry of Employment for Dalits, Rural folks, or the less educated. All labour market outsiders face ecosystem challenges and an overhaul would cover:


Women’s workforce participation in rural India is higher than that in urban India but this is deceptive; it ignores productivity and incomes. An important driver of women’s low productivity in self-employment or small entrepreneurship is capital; lending to women-led organisations is 31% less than men. An important start is the Rs 3 lakh crore for loans under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana and Stand Up India scheme; data suggests that women are 68% and 81% of the beneficiaries under both. But more must be done to encourage formal bank loans, non-bank finance company lending and, private equity (without whacky firefly kind of ideas like a Mahila Bank).


Cities offer greater access to the formal work, training, and capital that create higher productivity and wages (New York City’s GDP equals that of Russia with 6% of the people and 0.00005% of the land). Urbanisation also offers the anonymity that blunts cultural barriers. The sweet spot for good urbanisation is cities with around a million people (India only has 52 cities but China has 375) because they are more likely to meet the Marchetii constant (commutes of 30 minutes). Good urbanisation needs fixing the current imbalance of power and resource between the central government (budget of Rs 34 lakh crore), 28 state governments (budget of Rs 40 lakh crore), and 2.5 lakh local governments (budget of Rs 3.7 lakh crore).


Women are hurt by the low productivity of India’s informality; our 63 million enterprises only translate to 22,500 companies with a paid-up capital of more than Rs 10 crore. This informality is amplified by 69,000+ compliances with more than 6,000 filings that changed 8,000 times last year.

A large part of this burden is created by labour laws that favour job preservation over job creation, and sabotage flexibility.

Other laws matter: the tax wedge can be larger for second earners and single parents and is particularly relevant for women labour force participation rates.


India’s huge farm employment not only produces a small amount of GDP (condemning most farmers to poverty) but is only made possible by the huge self-exploitation of women. But just as the only way to help farmers is to have less of them, the best way to help women is to move them to formal, non-farm activities with higher productivity (and therefore higher incomes). India’s manufacturing employment can go from 11% to 20% of the labour force even though manufacturing is much less labour intensive than it used to be.

Human Capital

India’s greatly improved enrolment and completion rates of girls in primary schools mask a declining net enrollment of girls in secondary education. The pandemic has disrupted girl education but even before 30 million out-of-school children out of which 40% were adolescent girls in India.

Most skill training is based on sector skill gap surveys and availability of employment that are biased against women who have different needs and skills.

A skill revamp based on design principles of learning-while-earning, learning-by-doing, learning-with modularity, learning-with-multimodal delivery, and learning with signaling value would help.

Pending the lag of structural reforms, those that involve rule or law changes should be fast-tracked.

‘Flick Of The Pen’ Reforms

Immediate notification of the four labour codes with an 18-month target for a single code. A uniform civil code with equal inheritance rights. A possibility of higher take-home salary by making voluntary employee contributions to medical and pension plans (EPF and ESI) while the employer contribution stays mandatory. A rationalisation, decriminalisation, and digitisation of our regulatory cholesterol of 69,000 compliances. An automatic licensing for online education to our 1,000+ universities. Allowing skill universities and tripartite contracts in apprenticeships. A glide path of 5 years instead of 15 for NEP (National Education Policy?).

Bold action is needed but we caution about unintended consequences that hurt the people we are trying to help; recent research by Professors Sofia Bapna and Russel Funk at the University of Minnesota suggests that the Maternity Benefit Act of 2017 may have discouraged some employers from hiring women of certain ages. Philosopher Kant reminds us “Ought implies Can” and the legislation would probably have benefited from thinking more deeply about financing this benefit.

The best news is on flexibility or hybrid work; Covid-driven digitisation has created an unimaginable randomised global experiment on work-from-home, work-from-anywhere, and asynchronous work with encouraging results; estimates suggest that flexible wage work could rise from 5% pre-pandemic to 25%. Flexibility matters because it shifts the traditional child break from an irreconcilable conflict to personal choices and trade-offs.

In Germany a woman’s income 10 years after having their first child is on average 61% lower than it was before; a man will be virtually unaffected. Even in progressive Denmark, the drop in women’s income is 21%.

India offers some upside surprises; our women started voting in 1947 while the Swiss gave universal franchise in 1972. The Texas Healthcare Act of 2021 tackling abortion lacks the freedom of India’s Medical Termination Act of 1971. But India has a history of rules that create powerful men; our invention of the game of chess as Chaturanga — Sanskrit for four divisions of the army; elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry — had a weak Queen. Some historians suggest the Queen only became the most powerful piece in Chess when Isabella became Queen of Spain in 1479.

Role models with acquired power matter because as Simone de Beauvoir said “one is not born a woman, one becomes one”. India’s biggest catalysts for gender justice are not our headline-hogging political betis and biwis but Indra Nooyi, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Gagandeep Kang, Mamata Banerjee and so many more. This is helped by the overdue reevaluation of our female sovereigns in children’s history (all our teenagers should read Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari). But policy can — and must — be bolder.

Manish Sabharwal is Vice Chairman and Co-founder; and Rituparna Chakraborty is Executive Vice President and Co-founder; at Teamlease Services.

The views expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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