Its getting better all the time

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Sunil Jain | Updated: Oct 9 2010, 16:55pm hrs
For years, activists, NGOs, politicians, almost anyone who is expected to have a conscience, spent time worrying about the worlds poor, what they ate, what they wore, and whether they went to school; when the world got richer, and less poor, the focus shifted to whether equal number of girls as boys got admitted to school; when India started to achieve a balance on that, the focus shifted to gender ratios in secondary schools, later in tertiary schools. Just see the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, and the reams of literature written by Indians and foreigners on how India has failed on all these fronts, and will continue to do so. And just in case India had any chance of acquitting itself on these fronts, there comes another report, not by the usual NGO/activist types, but by a reputed global bank Standard Chartered Bank, along with the school of management in UKs Cranfield University, has come up with another non-performance and sad statistic, that women account for just 5.3% of all directorships of Indian corporates.

Aha! We told you so, not only does India kill female children at birth, it burns them to death after marriageyou know the rest of the story. But while talking down is easy, the facts tell quite a different story. Equally important is the interpretation of these facts. Of course, Indias literacy levels are lower compared to other countries, but what matters more than the illiteracy of our grandmothers is the illiteracy levels among the 15-35 year olds; what matters more than the education gender ratios for the entire population are the gender ratios for 8-18 year olds.

As for gender education equality ratios, they are getting better the 72% girl-to-boy ratio in tertiary education today was 54% in 1990. Look at newspaper headlines on the days the CBSE results come out and, in almost every year, girls do better than boys. Dropout ratios for girls, once the big problem, have also improved dramatically and arent that different from those for boys.

The other factor to keep in mind when measuring progress is that absolute numbers dont matter, what matters is change. Theres no point saying, like many do, that OBCs are 32.1% of the population (this was the situation in the 1999-00 NSS survey) but just 24.2% of those in top managerial jobs. What matters is the proportion of OBCs among Indias graduates (you do need to be a graduate to get a top job, one presumes); and the proportion of OBCs among those passing school based on the last thick NSS round in 1999-00 was 25.9%. Our calculations showed there was absolutely no sign of discrimination once you do this (see Surjit S Bhalla & Sunil Jain, Schooling acts as effective job quota, http://www.businessstandard.com/india/news/schooling-acts-as-effective-job-quota/239695/).

But coming back to the central focus of our analysis the alleged and deep discrimination in the workplace of directors of corporates. First, the raw numbers dont look that bad. If India has just 5.3% of directors who are women, the figure is 15% for Canada, 14.5% for the US, 12.2% for the UK, 8.9% for Hong Kong and 8.3% for Australia. So how come the politically correct arent saying the US is less than a third of the way to perfect equality (shouldnt women be 50% of all corporate boards, in the gender-sensitive US where they neither kill female children nor burn them after theyre married, where parents dont stop the girl-child from studying)

The facts just get better. The first correction to the use of unadulterated data is that it needs to be made comparable. First, we should look at the data only for urban India as none of the compared countries has a rural population, so the comparable base has to be urban India. Second, since women in corporate India can only be there if you have women who are working, the comparator has to be the proportion of women in the workforce.

Lets take the proportion of women who are working, the labour force participation rates (LFPRs), not just for India but for all countries. The LFPR (see table) is 34.2% in India, 58.6% in the US (all things considered, that means a woman in the US has a 71% better chance than one in India of making it to a corporate board) and 55.8% in the UK. Now look at the proportion of women on the board of corporates in each one of these countries and see that as a proportion of the LFPRs. The proportion of eligible Indian women in board positions rises immediately to 18.9% versus 31.7% in the US and 26.8% in the UK still lower of course, but less so compared to when we were using the raw numbers.

Actually, what really matters is the proportion of women who are working in urban India, and thats around 20%, which means that 20% of the urban labour force is comprised of women. Take the proportion of women board members to this, and the actual figure for India is 26.5% versus 31.7% for the US and 26.8% for the UK. Not unequal at all.

All of this, youll argue, is playing with numbers, all that matters is the overall ratio of women in the boardrooms. Not quite. With the proportion of women in the labour force rising rapidly, and expected to reach 30% in another five years, given these ratios, expect a surge in women in board positions, to the 26.5% levels just spoken of. Not surprising, one might add, for a country that gave women prime ministers long before the developed world had any the US, it has to be pointed out, hasnt had one woman head of state.

ssbhalla@gmail.com, sunil.jain@expressindia.com