India should leverage digital mentoring to increase women’s participation in the workforce


Imagine a room full of university students in India: young men and women sitting side by side equal numbers. Fast forward 10 years: 8 out of 10 of these men are likely to be active in the labor market compared to only 3 in 10 women. This example illustrates one of the great conundrums of the female workforce in India: a low and rapidly declining participation rate, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, despite economic growth and increasing enrollments of women at all levels of education, and in particular in higher education (sometimes referred to as post-secondary education; see Figure 1).

Young Indian women face many intersecting challenges that affect their participation in the labor market, foremost among them, the triple impact of skills gap, a network gap, and restrictive gender norms.

Skills gap: Graduate programs rarely address 8 out of 10 skill employers most value today, when it comes to problem solving, self-management and working with people, and they are rarely built by traditional pedagogical approaches in the classroom.

Network gap: Women in India tend to have small professional networks because social norms prevent them from freely engaging. A lack of models can limit aspirations, decrease belief in their personal abilities and reduce the likelihood of women breaking gender stereotypes and embarking on academic or professional paths where they do not see other women.

Restrictive gender norms: Social norms defining a woman’s role as primarily that of a caregiver is one of the main factors discouraging female labor market participation (FLFP) in India. In urban areas, women’s participation in the labor market declines between their early to mid-twenties – when marriage and family responsibilities tend to increase – but unlike other countries, especially in urban areas, only a few women in India to return labor later.

Reversing the decline in women’s participation in the labor market is essential for India’s economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is compelling evidence that these three highlighted causal factors of low FLFP are indeed malleable. But for the 19 million young women currently enrolled in higher education in India, can we address these three factors at scale and put women on a trajectory that allows them to enter and thrive in the workforce?

In my guidance note “Unlocking the Economic Potential of Young Women Through Digital Mentoring in India”, I provide evidence that digital mentoring would be widely accessible given the increasing use of technology by women and is one way effective in tackling these three problems on a large scale (Figure 2); I also provide detailed recommendations to help create an ecosystem of policies and practices that would deliver quality digital mentoring at scale and help unleash the potential of women in the workforce.

Figure 2. Digital mentoring facilitates skills exchange, network expansion and modeling transformative gender social norms

Figure 2. Participation of women in the labor market

Source: author’s conceptualization, with support from original design by Jonathan McKay.

Based on a case study of a single mentoring program, Mentor To Go (MTG), which included the participation of 1,000 young people between March 2020 and April 2021, I learned the following:

  1. Digital mentoring reached girls from low-income families in 10 Indian states, with two state government partnerships in Karnataka and Telangana, which helped boost uptake of the program by girls. Although women were not specifically targeted, they made up 61% of total MTG program enrollments and were 89% more likely than young men to meet all eligibility requirements.
  2. The young women mentees have developed their preparation for work and their life skills. An evidence-based job readiness mentoring program and one-on-one mentor advice helped the women improve their skills.
  3. Virtual The mentoring has created a large and diverse network of career mentors and role models across India. The mentees appreciated that the mentors were carefully selected and selected, which increased their confidence in the network.
  4. A mentoring network egalitarian gender norms can be a driving force in helping to change social norms. With so many mentors defending the career aspirations and dreams of young female mentees, a vast secondary network of trust can help advocate for change, especially in the mindsets of traditional families.

Recommendations to unlock the potential of women

After reviewing the findings of my case study, I focused my recommendations on creating a dynamic and impactful digital support system for young women.

  1. Publish a state tutoring policy which describes the current FLFP and the FLFP’s goals, challenges and priority areas that mentors should focus on to help increase women’s participation in the labor market.
  2. Create an annual strategic plan for mentoring awareness in higher education institutions through a “state nodal partner” – appointed to coordinate all workforce preparation programs – with a specific focus on gender.
  3. Recognize mentorship as an approved internship in the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) Internship Portal.
  4. Champion of the implementation of the quality program by requiring that mentorship programs be evaluated annually by third-party organizations.
  5. Monitor new skills needs and use evidence-based frameworks to create mentoring programs that cultivate these skills.
  6. Bridging the network gap by leveraging existing networks like LinkedIn to create more equitable ways for mentees from backgrounds with limited social capital to access rich and diverse opportunities.
  7. Launch major national campaigns defend the idea that women have their place in the workplace and that the right to work is a human right.

Reversing the decline in women’s participation in the labor market is essential for India’s economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not enough to create more jobs or to ensure that young women complete their education. Collectively, we need to ensure that young women have aspirations unhindered by gender norms, clear goals and plans to achieve their aspirations, skills that match the careers they aspire to, networks that increase their access to opportunities labor market and social and family standards that defend their economic empowerment.

I will present more detailed findings and recommendations at the “Girls’ Education Research and Policy Symposium: Protecting Rights and the Future in Times of Crisis” which begins on November 30, 2021. To register for the virtual plenary session and / or my workshop, please click here.


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