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Women make up almost half of India's 1.2 billion population, yet their economic potential has been largely ignored. Now, economists say women could hold the key to the future growth of Asia's third-largest economy.
Indian women can add $2.9 trillion, or 60 percent to annual GDP, by as early as 2025, if allowed to participate in the workforce on an equal basis as men, according to the 2015 McKinsey Global Institute Report.
"Women's empowerment is an absolute economic no-brainer...Empowering women boosts economic growth. For example, we have estimates that, if the number of female workers were to increase to the same level as the number of men, GDP would expand by 27 percent in India," Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in September. India's economy grew at an annual rate of 7.4 percent in the September quarter.
Yet female participation in the labor force is a low 24 percent, according to the McKinsey report, and Indian women's contribution to the economy is the lowest on a global scale, at 17 percent.
"There is an entire population and skillset that is missing from the workforce. Why is it ?" asks Ankita Vashistha, CEO of the 1 billion rupee ($15 million) Saha Fund that invests only in ventures run by women or which produce services and products for female consumers.
Huge leakage of talent
Gender inequality, a lack of education and childcare facilities, social pressures and rising crime in cities are all cited as reasons for women opting out of the workforce.
Limited financial inclusion, with women getting less than 10 percent of all loans granted, along with a preference for a male child and rules such as the ones that mean a woman needs to get her husband's signature for even a car loan, have all contributed to women being left behind in the Indian economy, say experts.
Manju Taneja, a 42-year-old who asked that her real name not be used, has an MBA from the top ranking Indian Institute of Management but has not worked for the past 10 years. She gave up her job when she had her first child and today spends most of her time looking after her three children.
Out of the 30 girls in her batch at the IIM, 15 are currently not working. If Manju had not left the workforce, today she could have been earning 10 million rupees ($150,000) a year, given current salary trends at the level of experience she would have reached, estimates an industry expert.
"Within the first five years of working there is a huge leakage of talent. We have to bridge the gap there…give girls something to hold on to so that they feel it is worth pursuing a career in spite of the pressure of marriage and child rearing," Ipsita Kathuria, founder and chief executive of TalentNomics India, an organization committed to building a pool of female leaders, tells CNBC.
In India 48 percent of women drop out of the workforce before they reach middle management positions, according to TalentNomics data.
"Childcare facilities are the biggest push to get women into the work force," says Rashmi Barua, assistant professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Industry body FICCI Ladies Organization (FLO) is lobbying policymakers to allow the school to turn into a daycare facility after school hours. This could remove one of the biggest hurdles that prevent women like Manju returning to the workforce. Employee benefits such as paternity and childcare leave would also help.
"Studies across the world have shown that working women's children are better fed, better educated, thus building social capital for the economy. This is called a double dividend," Archana Garodia Gupta, president of FLO, tells CNBC.
She adds that a business processes outsourcing (BPO) firm, looking to generate employment in smaller Indian towns, conducted a survey on how its employees spent their money. The survey found women spent 93 percent of their earnings on the family's nutrition and education, while the men spent only 60 percent on family needs, the rest on their personal expenditure.
"Let women spend the money, it will do the economy more good," says Gupta.
While senior managers recognize the merits of hiring women - women are great multi-taskers and work harder to prove themselves, according to managers - in India women make up less than 20 percent of senior managers in listed and privately held mid-market companies, according to TalentNomics.
This means that Indian companies are compromising on their profitability.
Good for the bottom line
According to a series of studies conducted since 2004 by Catalyst, an organization working towards expanding opportunities for women, companies that achieve diversity in their management ranks attain better financial results. For example, companies with the most female board directors outperformed those with the least on return on sales by 16 percent and return on invested capital by 26 percent.
In India the government has mandated that all listed companies have at least one woman on the board, but 500-odd companies had defaulted on that as of October 2015, according to TalentNomics' Kathuria. She adds that gender balanced teams at companies lead to greater innovation and result in more patents.
What about unpaid work?
While the case for bringing women into the market economy is strong, there is another view that women in India, though not earning money, are still working - at home. Cooking, cleaning and taking care of the elders and children is unpaid work, argue some economists, that should be calculated as part of the country's GDP.
According to the McKinsey report, women perform 9.8 times the amount of unpaid work than men in India. If that unpaid work were to be valued and compensated in the same way as paid work, it would contribute $300 billion to India's economic output. But the current measure of GDP does not assign value to housework, therefore it becomes imperative to bring women to the workforce to accelerate economic growth, say experts.
As FLO's Gupta says, "The next round of workers is going to come from women. World over, a lot of that demographic dividend we are expecting will come from here."