As part of the ‘Future of Women’s Work’ theme of the first series of GBL Access, our Co-Founder and Chief Development Officer, Prof. Achyuta Adhvaryu had a conversation with Dr. Shagun Sabarwal, Director of Policy, Training and Communications at J-PAL South-Asia, and Director at CLEAR South Asia. She leads J-PAL South Asia’s engagements with governments, donors, and civil society organizations to initiate new research, disseminate policy lessons, and scale up evidence-based programs. As Director of CLEAR South Asia, she promotes the center’s mission to strengthen the monitoring, evaluation, learning systems, and data use of decision-makers in the region through capacity building and advisory services.
The conversation focuses on the importance of evidence-based policy-making and incorporating women’s challenges in policy design. The Female Labor force Participation rate (FLPR) in India has been declining over the past decade and reached as low as 20.79% in 2019. “Many countries at the same level of economic growth as India are doing much better. So we are definitely an outlier here,” Sabarwal says, pointing to the graveness of this issue.
Measurement of Women Empowerment
Discussing the declining FLPR in India and the possible reasons behind it, Sabarwal says, “because economic empowerment for women can look so different depending on where they are, the challenges are even more complex”. Further unpacking the problems with the way labor force participation is measured, she brings to the fore the issue with the parameters used to get such measurements. “If we don't figure out how we measure women's economic empowerment right, not only do we run the risk of not understanding the barriers and the constraints, we also may be blindsided into thinking certain programs don't work because our measures are faulty and not picking up the variation.” The discussion continues to highlight the impact this loophole could have on devising policy solutions.
Leveraging research to create women-centred policies
Sabarwal highlights the excitement that skill-development programs spark among policymakers in India, both at a government as well as firms’ level, and how they have not lived up to their potential as far as impact on FLPR is concerned. Explaining this issue further, Sabarwal says that existing skilling programs are not being designed to keep [in consideration] the constraints and vulnerabilities faced by women and girls in low and middle-income countries. The ensuing discussion underlines that not only have such programs seen a low rate of take-up, but dropout is also a major issue. Agreeing to the points made, Adhvaryu adds, “in addition to not being such a great feature for the program and for the women who are enrolled, it's also not a great use of taxpayer dollars.”
A major factor hindering the success of skilling programs, brought out by this conversation, is the lack of an information exchange channel between the policy-makers and the researchers. Sabarwal highlights the missing link between what the academic research finds and what the policies are deployed for and emphasizes the role of organizations like Good Business Lab (GBL) and J-PAL in reducing this gap.
It is not enough to just make research insights available, the discussion informs us. Academic findings have to be synthesized into actionable insights in a form that can be easily digested by the policymakers.
Making the case for worker wellbeing programs
The duo agree on and emphasize the fact that skilling programs alone are not enough to improve the FLPR and that firms must take up worker wellbeing programs. There is a need for firms to create internal policies addressing the struggles and vulnerabilities specifically experienced by women employees. However, from personal experience, Adhvaryu points towards the resistance that comes from firms in accepting those research-backed programs as another hindrance. So how does one convince firms to take up certain programs?
Both Sabarwal and Adhvaryu cite their own experience in the research and business world to bring attention to the fact that firms require “not just evidence, but also some sort of pathway or tool kit or implementation support to get things through,” as Prof. Adhvaryu puts it. Sabarwal supports the argument, saying that “the first stage has to be trying to make it very incentive-compatible” and the incentive for firms lies in profit-making. Hence, in order to generate demand for research in this field, the evidence has to reflect not only the kinds of programs that will be successful in resolving the identified issue, but also convince firms on the said program’s ability to generate a strong return on investment. Experimentation through Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) can play a crucial role in creating a body of such evidence and a method to scale-up these programs and create bigger interventions that businesses can adopt.
Both Adhvaryu and Sabarwal acknowledge that while we do not know what is the right way to create a “progress ladder” for women employees, there is a lot of scope for organizations that have similar goals to come together and form a movement. Research and experimentation can play a crucial role in finding the actual impact of women’s participation in the economy beyond the macro data available on the subject. Research on how women impact profit generation within firms has the potential to make a stronger case for hiring more women at the firm level and ultimately, improve the FLPR.