Gender gap: Making the case for diversity

What can India learn from Nordic countries to close the gender gap?

Finland closing 86.1% of the gender gap stands second due to the increased presence of women in senior and managerial roles.
Finland closing 86.1% of the gender gap stands second due to the increased presence of women in senior and managerial roles.

By Rajesh Mehta & Diksha Mittal

India’s poor performance on the Global Gender Gap report card hints at a serious wake-up call and learning lessons from the Nordic region for the government and policymakers. India has slid 28 spots to rank at 140 among 156 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index. The pandemic causing a disproportionate impact on women jeopardises rolling back the little progress made in the last decades—forcing more women to drop off the workforce and leaving them vulnerable to domestic violence.

Despite women having been at the front line as essential workers, the pandemic has added extra 36 years to realise gender parity. The gender gap in political empowerment is the widest with only 22% closed to date, where India has shrunk 13.5% points. The economic participation and opportunity sub-index has also decreased, albeit to a lesser extent, as the gap widened by 3%. India ranks among the bottom five countries in the health and survival sub-index, closing 93.7% to date.

Gender equality at the workplace has remained elusive. Early projections from the ILO suggest that 5% of all employed women lost their jobs, compared with 3.9% of employed men. Women represent just 27% of all manager positions. The share of women in professional and technical roles declined further to 29.2%. Indeed, the estimated earned income of women in India was one-fifth of men’s earning.

Women are victims of violence with the crime rate being at 53.9%. The ‘shadow pandemic’ of exploitation and abuse, including domestic and intimate partner violence, should be a jarring wake-up alarm. The female gender will be likely to suffer the adverse socio-economic impact as they carry responsibility for unpaid dependent care.

Amidst such statistics, the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland) have long been rewriting gender parity norms as they have taken root at the top of the global rankings. They explicitly support gender equality at work, at home, and in public. It’s time for India to learn from Nordic countries’ forward-looking initiatives leading to a developed welfare state.

Iceland has been the most gender-equal country in the world for the 12th time where women have been in the highest institutional positions for almost as long as men in the past 50 years. The island nation has a culture of political empowerment, and 39.7% of parliamentarians and 40% of ministers are women. It also became the first country in the world to make the gender pay gap illegal, together with the highest proportion of GDP expanded on childcare.

Finland closing 86.1% of the gender gap stands second due to the increased presence of women in senior and managerial roles. It has played a pioneering role in bringing about gender equality, becoming the second country to grant women the right to vote and, in 1906, was the first to award women full political rights. With further improvement on the economic participation and opportunity sub-index, India should learn to actively include women’s participation in the labour force.

Norway due to its additional period of a woman head of state and marginal improvements in the share of women in Parliament follows the queue. Gender quotas legislate for a 40% female presence in the country’s Parliament and on business boards, resulting in a strong female presence. (New Zealand’s improvement in the political empowerment score helped it climb two places from last year, closing at 84%).

Sweden remains one of the countries offering the most gender-equal conditions for childcare: 78% of annual gross wages are covered during maternity leave with public spending on childcare being 1.6% of GDP (second only to Finland).

The paper-based thematic debate on gender equality has to convert into actions that set into motion a holistic, integrated design and implementation path in India. Learning from the Nordic region, noteworthy participation of women in politics, institutions and public life is the catalyst for transformational change. Women need to be equal participants in the labour force to pioneer the societal changes the world needs in this integral period of transition. Every effort must be directed towards achieving gender parallelism by facilitating women in leadership and decision-making positions. Social protection programmes should be gender-responsive and account for the differential needs of women and girls. Research and scientific literature also provide unequivocal evidence that countries led by women are dealing with the pandemic more effectively than many others.

Gendered inequality, thereby, is a global concern. Parity is not a zero-sum game, but a common spur and a pragmatic imperative. India should focus on targeted policies and earmarked public and private investments in care and equalised access. Women are not ready to wait for another century for equality. It’s time India accelerates its efforts and fight for an inclusive, equal, global recovery.

Mehta is an international consultant and columnist; Mittal is a public policy researcher

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