There was a surreality in reading last Thursday’s newspapers. One lead story was on Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandburg and her visit to India where she had representatives of the Ficci ladies organisation, formidable businesswomen, falling at her well-shod feet. The pink papers front-paged a story on the succession plan at the R4,000-crore Apollo Hospitals involving four women, with Preetha Reddy and Shobhana Kamineni as front-runners. The same newspapers carried a subtext; Sandburg admitted that women in high places suffer “from a tyranny of low expectations”. And at another event in Aspen, Indira Nooyi, routinely bracketed among the world’s most powerful women, acknowledged that it was difficult to maintain a work-life balance. “We pretend we have it all. ..every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom.”
It could be her Indian background, but it did resonate with the latest Census data report front-paged on the same day. It said that nearly 160 million women in India, 88% of whom are of working age—15 to 59 years—remain at home doing ‘household duties.’ These 16 crore are the Great Invisible Workforce, primarily involved in domestic work and rearing families. The large proportion of working age group women who are confined to their homes is partly because of social pressures, lack of education and economic policies that provide no opportunities to women. Either way, it is a shocking loss to the country, and the women themselves. Underusing women across the spectrum of human activity is obviously wasteful. Their cognitive powers are the same as men, but because they have different interests and styles, they make for more diverse and probably more innovative workplaces. In countries with an ageing population, the need for more women at work is a no-brainer.
Goldman Sachs estimates that if Japan could increase the female employment rate, the country’s labour force would expand by more than 8 million—and its GDP will grow by 15%. That’s significant for a struggling economy with an ageing population. It’s probably why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Abenomics’ includes ‘Womanomics’. According to the International Monetary Fund, if women worked at the same level as men in Egypt, the country’s GDP could grow by 34%.