Bob Charles, the Hong Kong-based managing director of Watson Wyatt Asia Pacific, describes himself as an old India hand. He advises some of India's largest private sector employers on actuarial and benefit design issues and was posted in India in 2001 following Watson Wyatt's acquisition of India's largest actuarial firm.
Charles says it's an irony that the Indian government as well as companies, which are crying from the rooftops about the acute talent shortage, are not doing enough to tap the formidable 'woman power' in the country. For example, he says, the younger generation of women in India is expected to achieve educational parity with men by 2016. And this is vastly superior to that in China.
Also, a study done by Watson Wyatt shows the gap between skilled men and women in India is shrinking. The percentage of skilled women living in urban areas (14 per cent) is close to that of skilled men (16 per cent). In fact, the average annual growth rate in skilled women (7 per cent) was about 1.5 times higher than the growth rate in skilled men.
But the irony is that Chinese women are much more likely to be in the workforce despite that country's lower percentage of skilled women in the total population. This is because workforce participation rates are twice as high for Chinese women as they are for Indian women.
Charles says the major shortcoming of India's talent pool is the conspicuously low participation of highly-educated women in economic activities. It's fairly obvious that more education has not translated into more working women in India.
The study says while women represented 38 per cent of enrolment in higher education, their workforce participation rates remained very low, at about 18 per cent in urban India. This low engagement arises from the low quality of many jobs offered to women and India's societal structure.
Though Indian companies deny it as they want to be projected as an equal opportunities employer, the bias is only too obvious. For instance, a team of labour researchers did a survey of women workers in three prominent industrial belts of India (Bangalore, Delhi-Faridabad and Pune) and found that the bias against women included wage and non-wage discrimination as well as qualitative differences in the nature of work offered to women.
The fact is women employees in India are still fighting an uphill battle for level pegging in areas such as equal pay for equal work. Consider the startling findings of a Sakshi survey of 2,400 men and women in a cross-section of workplaces and hierarchies: 80 per cent of respondents said sexual harassment existed at their workplace and 53 per cent said men and women did not have equal opportunities at work.
Nearly two-thirds of women in manufacturing are employed as production operators or manual workers. Even in the service sector, women are concentrated in clerical, sales and services jobs that are traditionally regarded as female occupations.
In India, women's employment is heavily skewed towards low-paying, low-skilled dead-end jobs. HR consultants say women -- the very few of them -- who complain about being harassed are often advised by colleagues and superiors to develop a sense of humour about these things.
An estimate made by the US Population Division also said India's women labour participation rate is only higher than Fiji's in a list of 14 Asia-Pacific nations. To put things in perspective, even countries like Bangladesh are far ahead of India.
Even in the organised sector, the lot of women workers in Bangladesh has been improving dramatically. The female share of the labour force in the export processing zones (almost 72 per cent) in Bangladesh exceeds that of Malaysia and is almost as high as Korea and the Philippines.
Indian employers often say employing more women workers is difficult as over half the population of educated women do not want to work outside the home. While this is a genuine problem, the fact is in most European countries, this was the norm two generations ago.
But companies worked around it and today almost all educated women in these countries work. Indian companies have no way out but to facilitate this change. This would mean looking away from the nine-to-five system of work hours; or setting up a day-care facility for employees' children; or other family-friendly benefits such as flexible work schedules, telecommuting, family leave and job sharing.
These may seem painful initiatives but are worth trying. For, as Charles says, these measures to tap into India's underutilised female talent pool will unlock new workforce possibilities for employers.