The ripple effect of gender inclusivity on India’s economy

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Do the genders of one’s coworkers matter? This question is pertinent in a traditional setting such as India, where gender roles are rigid, and there is little interaction with different genders as equals, within and outside the family.

In 2019, I conducted a survey of 1,200 call centre employees in five cities in India to study the impact of gender diversity on employee productivity. I found that about 30% of the employees did not interact with the opposite gender outside of their family, while in school. They either didn’t attend co-educational schools, or if they did, boys and girls were not allowed to sit together. These archaic gender norms which advocate gender segregation at a young age make the entry barriers for women into the workplace even tougher. More than 30% of the surveyed call centre employees were from rural areas.

The field experiment — or randomised controlled trial (RCT) — took place in two Indian call centre companies: Call-2-Connect India Pvt. Ltd, and Five Splash Infotech Pvt. Ltd. They serve domestic customers and, therefore, customer sales representatives often speak to customers in the regional language. I randomly assigned the 765 employees into mixed-gender and same-gender teams. The employees were seated in teams for three months.

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I found that it was not expensive for firms to integrate women into all-male workplaces. There is no negative impact on either productivity or the share of days worked during the study period, of being assigned to a mixed-gender team for male employees. Additionally, male employees benefitted from female employees because women were helpful in matters related to work.

Importantly, men with progressive gender attitudes assigned to mixed-gender teams had significantly higher productivity than those with regressive gender attitudes. These attitudes were assessed at the beginning of the study, when I conducted a study to broadly ascertain attitudes regarding gender such as education, employment, fertility, and traditional gender roles. For example: “Should the wife be less educated than her husband?”

The study also revealed that, for female employees, there was an increase in peer monitoring and comfort among those assigned to mixed-gender teams.

Research on productivity improvements in this high-growth, private-sector employer is crucial for job creation for many young workers, particularly women. The ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY) and the software technology parks of India (STPI) are interested in expanding these call centres to smaller cities and villages, and providing special incentives to firms to hire women. This move has enormous potential for gender inclusivity.

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In a post-pandemic world, policymakers will need to provide fiscal stimulus to boost labour demand in India’s economy. Policies which incentivise firms to hire women can bring them into the paid workforce. The findings of the study also make a case for improving gender attitudes as a policy measure to increase hiring female workers. The productivity in gender-diverse workplaces is likely to be higher with more integration, so long as male employees have progressive gender attitudes. This can be inculcated.

However, gender inequality seems to be increasing with India’s ranking on the gender inequality index plummeting over time. Among its neighbours, its position is only better than Pakistan and Afghanistan (World Economic Forum, 2021).

Bangladesh, with a lower per capita income than India, is doing significantly better in most indicators of gender equality including sex ratio at birth, female literacy rate, female labour force participation, gender wage equality, earned income of women and political representation of women. Among other policies, Bangladesh has made this progress due to women empowerment initiatives geared towards strengthening social acceptance of women’s work. Therefore, investments in workplace interventions involving gender equality training by firms in India might be beneficial in improving their productivity and profits. Call centres can be a start.

Deepshikha Batheja is a postdoctoral fellow, Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy

The views expressed are personal

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