UNIDO UN Women Leadership Dialogue on Women and Gender Diversity in Manufacturing in India
UN House, New Delhi (16 June 2023)
Women are vastly under-represented in the manufacturing sector in India, equally from the boardroom to shop floor and throughout all technical and managerial roles. A growing number of women though succeeds in technical, management and leadership roles, largely on the account of their self-determination, and can serve as role models for women and girls to enter manufacturing by choice and with a career perspective. Bringing in a gender lens to address the challenges women are facing in the manufacturing sector can unleash growth and innovation in manufacturing, and benefit families and societies.
Female labour force participation in India is amongst the lowest in Asia and globally. Through G20 and other forums, policy and initiatives, the Government of India and development partners are putting the spotlight on the opportunity for and need to unlock and scale up progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through greater participation of women in the formal economy and the achievement of gender diversity in workplaces. Among major economic sectors, female employment in manufacturing is lowest, save for select subsectors and job categories, for example in the garment industry.
Against this background, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and UN Women organized a leadership dialogue on women and gender diversity in manufacturing in hybrid modality from UN House in New Delhi on 16th June 2023. Five women working in different manufacturing roles shared their experiences and lessons learned, and UN agencies and Government of India discussed their initiatives.
Dr. Rene Van Berkel, UNIDO India Representative elaborated on the current participation of women in manufacturing in India. Women hold few of the formal jobs in factories, these jobs are highly skewed among few sectors, particularly apparel, food processing and electronics sectors and concentrated with the Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu having nearly 3/4th of female manufacturing jobs. Redressing this imbalance is not an easy task, but that is no excuse not to start. Until the time arrives that women and men work collaboratively and equally in manufacturing, families, communities and society at large will miss out on the numerous socio-economic and other sustainable development outcomes industrial development holds promise for.
Ms. Susan Ferguson, Representative for India, UN Women reiterated the low percentage of female workers. The share of women in manufacturing has increased by 4 percent since 2019, yet with 12% it remains one the lowest among major economies. The only exception is garment manufacturing, which employs 45 million people of which 60 percent are women. The feminization of government has not yet translated into better roles and pay for women and their increased participation in manufacturing and the economy at large. This will require specific investment and focus, to create and promote an environment of gender equality in manufacturing and breaking stereotypes around manufacturing being male dominated.
Ms. Fatou Haidara, Deputy to DG UNIDO and Managing Director, Global Partnerships and External Relations, UNIDOdelivered address as chief guest. She observed that the scale of gender disparities is such that it will be impossible to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, globally as industries move towards production of more knowledge and capital-intensive goods, the female share of employment decrease, given the concentration of women manufacturing employment in low skilled, low cost, and labour intensive jobs. Concerted and collaborative action may prioritize women’s participation in leadership roles, training and skills development for women, advocacy for equal participation of women and girls and gender diverse entrepreneurial development in supply chain and market practices.
UNIDO is supporting gender diversity in manufacturing through its normative functions and its technical cooperation project. UNIDO’s Medium-Term Programme Framework 2022-25 has established gender equality and empowerment of women as high-level priority. Moreover, the gender strategy commits the organization to ensure that by 2023, 45 percent of newly approved projects per year significantly contribute to gender equality and the empowerment of women.
India has adopted some commendable practices. The public procurement guidelines state that the central ministries, departments and public sectors undertakings (PSU) source at least 25 percent of its procured goods and services from MSMEs and 3 percent from the micro and small enterprises that are owned by women. The different states are replicating this requirement.
In the manufacturing sector, it is imperative to strengthen opportunities for women to access more dignified, rewarding and better paying jobs. The digital transition to Industry 4.0 offers perspective s in this regard. Gender diversity needs to become that norm in workplaces.
Addressing the global challenges of our time – ending poverty and fighting the climate crisis – calls for closing the persistent gender gaps in manufacturing, the economy and across society.
Ms. Shradha Suri Marwah, Managing Director, Subros Limited and Vice President, Automotive Component Manufacturers Association (ACMA) mentioned that the automotive components sector is highly male dominated. As a case in point, ACMA has only five women in leadership roles. Subros Limited succeeded to increase women’s participation from less than 0.5 percent to 12 percent in the past 22 years, still far from where it should be. The last time ACMA had a female president was 50 years ago. Discrimination, unequal pay and safety concerns are keeping women out of leadership positions. Firms need to set their policy with targets for gender equality, flexibility and equal pay.
Ms. Nilu Singh, MSME Counsellor, UDAY-PRIDE Project noted that she is the only female counsellor in the project and has at times found it at first difficult to be accepted as an industry expert by manufacturing MSMEs. Women commonly refer to sense of insecurity, lack of adequate skills and unhygienic workplace. Small companies often do not have basic facilities like changing rooms, hygienic washrooms etc.
On the other hand, practice shows that it makes good economic sense to have a gender diverse workforce. As one company in Pantnagar saw that it benefitted from the services of a female counsellor, it hired more females and now women constitute over half of its workforce. Work culture has improved significantly with better overall productivity and quality, and reduced absenteeism. Women do not see a career perspective to get into higher and decision-making roles in manufacturing. More efforts are required, to create and promote career paths for women to attract them into manufacturing and benefit from their competencies, skills and values.
Ms. Bijal Mathkar, Research & Innovation Director, Solvay Research and Innovation Center India acknowledged that she had benefitted from the world class women-centric policies and initiatives taken by Solvay. Ultimately, three actors need to collaborate to empower women – women, society, and industry. Women should take care not to hold themselves back by their own glass ceiling, and can prepare for manufacturing roles particularly with a STEM focused education. Secondly, society should get rid of it biases that manufacturing is a man’s job. Thirdly, industry should show leadership and appoint more women at the helm – Solvay only got its first female CEO in 2019!
The changes in the individual and collective mind-set may take long. COVID laid bare the vulnerabilities of Indian families depending on one income. There is a ray of hope this realization will open doors for women and girls to enter the formal economy and employment in manufacturing.
Ms. Neha Jain, Founder and CEO, Zerocircle shared that because of her upbringing, she never felt held back to start her own cleantech business, for which she benefitted greatly from participation in UNIDO cleantech accelerator programme. This showed the importance of mentorship and networking to succeed as start-up. As an example, it took Zerocircle six 6 months to find a manufacturing location and facility that women could reach without safety concerns.
Ms. Sushma Morthania, Co-founder and Director General, India SME Forum reiterated the low figures for women participation in manufacturing in India. There are 80 million Self-Help-Groups (SHG) and 63 million MSMEs, but only 2.03 million of these are owned by women. Women own less than 100 medium sized, and just about 5000 small sized business, with the remainder all micro.
Earlier she ran an export unit, and there were no decent public utilities on the eight hours journey from the unit to the seaport. It was also intimidating to be the only women in the Sea Port amongst thousands of men. Whilst there have been laudable improvements, women entrepreneurship deserves to be encouraged and scaled up, for example with women-centric business and industrial parks with plug-and-play industrial facilities and proper social and security infrastructure. Moreover, it is imperative to eradicate the gender bias in common language such as entrepreneur, trader, exporter – making sure these include and represent women and men equally.
Mr. Sanjiv, Joint Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), spoke of the robust start-up programme that DPIIT is running which aims to build a strong eco-system for nurturing innovation and Startups in the country to drive sustainable economic growth and generate large scale employment. 47 percent of the start-ups has at least one female director.
Indian female technicians outperform those in competing countries, as quoted by Mr. Ashish Chowdhary, MD of Apple India – a company that has high share of women in its India manufacturing workforce.
Given the mixed successes of industrial parks in India, creating dedicated industrial zones for women headed enterprises may not be a priority, and efforts may rather focus on providing necessary support for women led enterprises, including access to financing, regardless of their location.
As gender disparity prevails, there is need for specific actions, which Government is seeking considered suggestions and recommendations for its consideration. In this regard, the words of Ms. Vasundhara Raje, former CM of Rajasthan still stand: “there is no need for International Women’s day, but till the time there is a gender-equality we should celebrate it.”
Mr. Rakesh Kumar, Joint Director, Ministry of MSME highlighted some of the efforts undertaken to promote women entrepreneurs. For instance, MSME Idea Hackathon which is the sub-component of the MSME flagship programme of the technology verticals in which financial assistance up-to maximum of Rs. 15 lakh per approved idea shall be provided to Host Institute for developing and nurturing of the idea into prototype.
In closing the dialogue, Dr. Rene Van Berkel, UNIDO India Representative, remarked that the dialogue showed that women are succeeding in different roles in manufacturing, including as owners and managers and as innovators and technical advisors. Moreover, those firms that have made conscious choices to increase significantly women’s participation in their workforces are achieving real time business benefits.
Simultaneously, the discussion also illustrated in very practical terms the diversity of challenges women are specifically facing, from deep-rooted biases in the (manufacturing) sector and the economy and society, underinvestment of manufacturing firms in basic facilities for hygiene, security at work and during commuting and inequalities in pay. Concerted efforts to address these challenges will undoubtedly enable many more women and girls to aspire work and a career in manufacturing. This is a joint responsibility of men and women to make this happen, and make it a normal to have gender diversity – if not gender parity – in all sectors, in all role profiles and at all levels of responsibility.
Enabling policy including a legal framework for diversity, equity and inclusion is required. Moreover, further efforts are needed in terms of skills development focusing equally on role specific technical skills (e.g. garmenting, welding, etc.) as well as cross cutting industrial skills (such as productivity and quality, health and safety, team work and problem solving). Having more women owned and managed manufacturing firms will require further customization and feminization of business development services, mentoring and financial services.