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Skill Development- A Prerequisite for Women Empowerment

India is celebrated world over for its bright and vivacious youth, while in many developed countries the amount of working population is decreasing by the day, India has a huge advantage since its demographic dividend is heavily tilted towards the youth. If we approach this through an economic lens, India has a lot to gain since its median age is merely 28 years and consequently a younger workforce translates into increased pace of development and economic growth. However, the participation of women in India’s workforce has been inadequate for over decades and in order to reap the complete benefits of our demographic dividend this gap has to be bridged at the earliest. A developing Indian economy needs around 103 Million (Mn) skilled workers between the years 2017-2022. Despite this more than 30 per cent, i.e. 100 Mn youth between the age groups of 15-29 are not in employment, education or training (NEET). Out this 100 Mn, around 88.5 Mn youth are women. While there has definitely been an increase in the proportion of women receiving vocational training over the past few years, this increase is visibly lesser than that received by men. To put the same in numbers, while the proportion of working age women receiving vocational training increased from 6.8 per cent in 2011-2012 to 6.9 per cent in 2018-19, the increase in proportion of working age men receiving training increased from 14.6 per cent to 15.7 per cent in 2018-19. 

India faces multifaceted challenges when it comes to ensuring women’s participation in the labour force. While on one hand the government is undertaking continuous measures to ensure that girls have a higher rate of enrolment and minimum dropout rates in primary, secondary and higher education, there are still a huge number of women who hold degrees but still do not have jobs. This essentially points to the fact that literacy alone cannot translate into effective employment, other barriers to effective employment of women in the form of social, historical and cultural hindrances also have to be addressed. Further, the stereotypical gender biases that come into play when women enter the workforce puts them at a further disadvantaged position as compared to men. Also, the time spent by women in performing unpaid care and domestic work often keeps them from entering the formal workforce. While men spend an average of 2.5 per cent of their time in performing care and domestic work, women spend as much as 25 per cent of their time doing the same. Another issue of concern is the skewed ratio of men and women participation rates in different sectors. As evident from the graph below the concentration of women trainees appears to be the highest in job roles that traditionally fall under the “feminised” sectors such as beauty, healthcare and apparel. Further, employment of women in fields like electronics and hardware still continues to be minimal. 


The Role of Skill Development in Women Empowerment 

Although women can constitute a massive chunk of India’s workforce, the percentage rate of working women in the total labour force is declining. Further, a large number of women are employed in the informal sector. These jobs are often seasonal, have meagre wages and provide no security of wages or tenure. Thus a focus on development of skills in women would be crucial in motivating them to develop life skills that will lead to higher paying and good quality jobs, better livelihood, economic independence and the ability to earn for their families. 

Rural women's restricted access to productive resources, educational levels and the pre-existing social norms concerning labour that is proper for women, tend to confine them to lower-paying, lower-status jobs with limited prospects for skill training and promotion, thus keeping them bound to their lower status. In many rural firms, widespread patterns of insecure employment and transitory and unstable contractual arrangements restrict employers from providing training to women. Rural women's vocational education and training are sometimes restricted to a small number of female-dominated areas, reinforcing their traditional roles and obligations. While such training improves their economic options, it limits their opportunities to gain from newer, non-traditional professions such as information and communication technology (ICT). Hence, proper skill training along with effective awareness generation campaigns become a prerequisite to bridge the gap between the options women have available to them and what they actually have the potential and inclination to take up. 

COVID-19 and the Need for Reskilling 

The second wave of Covid-19 hit India with an unexpected ferocity. Even before the world was struck by the Covid-19 crisis, advancements in technology and newer ways of working were disrupting various jobs and the resulting skills that employees needed to equip themselves with in order to undertake these jobs. The McKinsey Global Institute had estimated in 2017 that 375 Mn workers or 14 per cent of the global workforce would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence. Adding on to the existing issues, the prolonged closure of skilling and educational facilities due to Covid-19 created new barriers for women who wanted to enter the labour force.

A few of these barriers are discussed below: 

One, the gender based digital divide increased. According to a report by GSMA titled “Connected Women – The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2021”, the percentage of women who owned a cell phone in 2020 was 25 per cent as compared to 41 per cent men.

Several women and adolescent girls dropped out of training due to a lack of smartphone ownership, unfamiliarity with phone functions, expensive data charges, and a lower priority given to women's skill training. The problem of an overnight shift in skilling seemed to have a dual challenge of infrastructure and human resource. While on one hand lower income families did not have the digital infrastructure to receive training, the trainers on the other hand were not fully equipped to undertake a completely digital form of training at such a short notice. 

Second, the challenge of commuting. Even before Covid-19, a study by Ernst and Young titled “Gender study to identify constraints on female participation in skills training and labour market in India” claimed that, 28.3 percent of women enrolled in Industrial Training Institutes mentioned commuting difficulties as a reason for leaving the programme. Added to this, public transportation was disrupted due to multiple lockdowns in various parts of India, as also, there was an increased danger of gendered violence in unoccupied public spaces because of which mobility of women was further restricted. 

“Reimagining” the Idea of Skilling

Despite all these issues, the lowering of women’s employment due to the pandemic can be taken up as an opportunity to reimagine how the government and concerned stakeholders look at “reskilling and up skilling” so as to give a new lease of life to skilling programs in India. 

First, a shift in focus to a women centric approach that through a comprehensive understanding of ground realities creates enabling training and education programmes for women. This would be beneficial to remove gender specific barriers that women face in attaining formal education or skill training.  Second, skilling needs to be integrated with measurable outcomes like employability, job retention and increased bargaining power for the trained individual. Third, reimagining skilling would involve envisioning design models that integrate traditional skills with enhanced digital technologies. Keeping in mind the huge digital gap that women face, it is essential to make skilling programs efficient in both digital training as well as digital access. If we are able to bridge this gap then traditional and digital skills will be combined to provide solutions that will allow women to access a much larger range of opportunities. Finally, improved valuation of unpaid work, as well as creating incentives and enabling infrastructures that promote gender balance, so that men also share household chores, is another area of action.

According to Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and Electronics and Information Technology, “Digitisation and re-skilling are key tools in not just empowering women to re-join the workforce in the post-pandemic era but also in creating new booming sectors in the economy”. The government is therefore directing its skill-building initiatives and the New Education Policy to ensure that more women participate in previously underserved fields. The aim of the government is to provide equal possibilities to men and women in terms of skills, and encouraging them to use those abilities to generate opportunities for themselves in the workplace or through micro-entrepreneurship. Various initiatives like the digital platform DESH stack have been put in place to provide both male and female micro-entrepreneurs the opportunity to come online to skill themselves, work on various opportunities and seek finances. 

Reskilling and Upskilling the Way Forward

The historical biases related to the gendered division of labour and the division of jobs as “feminine and masculine” have led to biases in hiring, wage setting and performance ratings. A coordinated message must be sent out that gender parity is not only a socially, but also a financially sensible and profitable decision. For women to be equally represented in various sectors reskilling and up skilling are a need of the hour. Given the significant social and economic benefits of a gender-balanced workforce, policymakers, businesses and the development sector must redesign the skills ecosystem to make it more inclusive and result-oriented for women. 

This article is authored by Ishita Sirsikar.

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