India needs businesswomen at all levels

The world’s top businesswoman is Indian – PepsiCo’s Chennai-born chief, Indra Nooyi – and there are six more executives from India in the top 50, as many as from China, and fewer than only the US.

But Indian glee should be tempered. When it comes to bringing women into the workplace; China does a much better job. According to Credit Suisse, two-thirds of Chinese women are economically active – compared with only one-third of Indian women.

“The gap between male and female economic activity rates is very high in India (48%) compared to China (12%),” Credit Suisse analysts wrote in a report this month, along with this chart.

Interestingly, Chinese women are also better rewarded for their labours: on average, they retire at the same age as their Indian counterparts (55), but live 10 years longer (75 v 65). (It does add that “retired Chinese women often support their children and grandchildren by helping the younger households with child- care and house-work”.)

Chinese women’s ability to enter the labour force is based, in part, on their access to education. In China, girls are more likely than boys to go to primary and secondary school, and as likely to go into further education. In India, there is a sizeable enrolment gap (proportion of men minus proportion of women) at all levels – meaning that literacy is 20 percentage points higher among men than women.

In politics, India has shown its intention to overtake China: a new system, passed by parliament in March, would give one-third of seats in the legislature to women, compared with China’s quota of 22 per cent. India has had a female prime minister; New Delhi has a female mayor.

The country must show similar ambitions for equality in the workplace if it is to reap its demographic dividend and meet the expectations of its female citizens.

Some rankings of powerful women may favour India, as the “Women at the top” list has; others, like the Hurun list of female billionaires, may put China in front. But elite performance owes much to individual excellence and luck. Bringing women in at all levels requires something more.

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