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India Is Full Of Inspiring Women—Let's Help Them Rise To The Top

08/03/2017 1:52 PM IST | Updated 08/03/2017 5:13 PM IST
Himanshu Saraswat / EyeEm via Getty Images

Today, we're seeing International Women's day being celebrated across the world and I'm excited being party to this celebration. This IWD, UN Women are asking us to step it up for gender equality. In terms of official statistics, only 50% of working age women are represented in the labour force globally compared to 76% of men. In 2014 in the UK 83.3% of men and 74.5% of women were in employment or actively seeking it.

In India, the figures are much starker. Although the Indian economy grew at about 7% per year between 2004 and 2011, women's participation in the labour market fell from 37% to 29%. There are real success stories like aviation where 11.7% of India's 5100 pilots are women (3% worldwide); and, in financial services, where Indian banks lead the world on gender equality. India's female-led banks control 40% of banking assets.

I'm afraid that I have been to too many meetings in India where the boys take control, and we all need to guard against this.

At British Council, we strongly believe in gender equality. That's why we've made sure we even have gender equality on our Management Board and introduced new ways of running our meetings, to make sure that all voices are heard on the issues we discuss.

I'm afraid that I have been to too many meetings in India where the boys take control, and we all need to guard against this. One of the meetings didn't have enough chairs for everyone attending. Some of the men had a pre-meeting but put their jackets on the chairs to reserve their seats! And the women held back. Or waiting for a meeting with a senior official, I realised that the smartest people in the room were the women policy officials we were chatting to. But once the men arrived, they took a back seat.

Having said that, I've also been a part of some meetings where the women have inspired me. I would like to mention a few of instances that have etched a mark on my mind.

I'm inspired by Pooja Kulkarni, a leading Tamil Nadu policy official, who wanted all girls in her state to go to school. She told me the kind of things she had to do to make that happen, starting from building a girls' toilet as there were none for them. For providing them ease of transport, she gave every girl a free bike. She's now working with us to offer programmes to improve English language teaching across the state.

Another case in point is Dr. Sunita Chhibba, Director General of the National Skills Development Agency, with whom we signed an MoU to put UK qualifications on the SWAYAM platform. I couldn't understand what was so different about my meeting with her but then it dawned on me that the room where we had our meeting was full of brilliant young women. They engaged with me in meaningful conversations as we spoke about policy. In the middle of the conversation, I stopped and acknowledged how special this meeting was for me, as it was the first time I'd had a meeting with a majority of women and young women decision makers. I saw a very special leader in Dr Chhibba as she clearly believed in gender equality and was making choices to promote it every day.

[T]he UN target will only be met when girls have unrestricted belief in their rights, freedom and abilities and also when the boys will protect and promote them.

There was another rushed meeting I had at a Government Guest House in Dimapur before my night train to Guwahati to meet the incredible Zuboni Humtsoe founder of Nagaland's first online fashion house and craft business PreciousMeLove. The brand started in Zuboni's garage in 2011 and now they sell products to clients all over India. I arrived with two cars of armed soldiers escorting me and a close protection police officer but Zuboni sat there with just her three co-workers. She told me how she built her online business in the face of challenges but is now proud to be making a living in Nagaland.

Another instance that I will never forget is the opportunity to meet and speak with 10,000 tribal women at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. Some of these women were the first young women in their families to get access to secondary and university education and that was truly one of the highlights of my time in India. Later that day, I also met the first woman elected by the Dongria Kondh tribe to represent them. She'd just saved her tribe's livelihood by protecting their sacred mountain. I was in awe of her powerful leadership and stewardship. Meanwhile, I also learnt how to ask for someone's name in Kui.

Over the last 10 years we've had the enormous privilege to support the ambitions of millions of women and girls in India. I hope that at least half the 900,000 teachers we've trained and the 35 million children they've reached are women. Through UKIERI, our scholarships and STEM women in science programme we've worked with thousands of women too. But I hope that in future we'll be able to tell our gender story with much better data and be clearer about the impact we've had.

I would urge everyone to make a daily choice of promoting gender equality in what we do and how we do it.

At the British Council, working everyday with my female colleagues is an inspiration. From designing programmes, to execution, communications, finance and HR, the British Council is fortunate to have women lead these spaces and own their work.

I believe that the UN target will only be met when girls have unrestricted belief in their rights, freedom and abilities and also when the boys will protect and promote them. That's why I hope we will grow our focus on gender equality in India, and that through our work we will empower boys and girls to think and act differently—and help them build the society we all want to be a part of.

I would urge everyone to make a daily choice of promoting gender equality in what we do and how we do it. I was in Los Angeles 10 days ago with the games industry, film and TV people and policymakers at an event with not nearly enough women. The few women present disclosed their strategies to make sure women's ideas get heard and not ignored between the bold voices of men. They started meetings with a silent idea sharing technique. They worked on a shared Google document anonymously adding to the subject and letting the best ideas come to the top. We need to use these kinds of ideas too.

So this IWD let's celebrate inspirational women but also think about how can we break through old structures to ensure women—and other underrepresented groups—are heard and are influencing the structures and the way we work.

Mythology Meets Digital Age

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