The article discusses the existing gender imbalance in the Indian public policy sphere with women having a trivial role and the strings of public decision making mostly controlled by men. It also talks about how gender balance can help in the creation of more gender-sensitive policies. Considering the rising number of think tanks in the country, it stresses on the need for making data on gender diversity readily available to track the progress. 

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Neethu Nair

The empowerment of women in the political arena has become one of the most important concerns of the 21st century. However, more than two decades after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action highlighted the urgent need to address gender equality, women in most countries remain under-represented in policymaking as in the boardroom.

In 2019, India stood 149th in a list of 193 countries ranked by the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments, trailing Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even seven decades after Independence, the representation of women in the Lok Sabha does not present an impressive picture at a meagre 14 per cent. The fact that only 9 per cent of the total candidates in 2019 Lok Sabha elections are women is a reminder that powerful women politicians are an exception and most political parties do not believe that women candidates can win elections. Female representation in state assemblies is even worse. Women account for a meagre 7 per cent of our central government workforce. Women representation in local bodies seems to be the only saving grace, thanks to a constitutional intervention. 

Keeping in mind that women turnout as voters is comparable to that of men in last parliamentary elections with a narrow gap of just 0.4 per cent, we see a curious case of women voting for men. As in household decision making, social psyche and economic power play entrenched in patriarchy may have influenced these women to choose male policymakers. This trivial role of women is a cause of serious concern as strings of our public decision making are pulled by men and unless we believe in benevolent paternalism our policies are going to be made by men for men.

The last decade saw a remarkable rise of think tanks feeding into India’s public policy debate. Perched at an interesting space between the official policymakers, academics and opinionated media commentators and lobby groups, these think tanks act as an extended circle for public policy making, implementation and evaluation. A gender balance in the leadership and roles of these think tanks can have positive outcomes in evolving gender-sensitive policies.

However, here too women seem to be missing from action. The study on Gender Equality in US Think Tank Leadership by the Centre for Global Leadership shows top US think tanks remain considerably imbalanced in terms of gender representation both on boards and at all levels of senior leadership positions. Women make up just 23 per cent of trustees and directors, and 30 per cent of highly compensated employees. And even among senior leadership, women are paid less than men. Data in the Indian context on gender equality in think tank leadership is scanty; however, there is no reason why the situation should be any different.

Given that think tanks are set up to provide leadership and insights in terms of public policy, this imbalance is especially problematic. How our think tanks feature in women’s representation, who gets to be counted as experts and whether think tanks are hiring and compensating equitably are crucial pointers to what good ideas we might be missing as a result.

However, despite this there are reasons to believe that gender mainstreaming is slowly making its way to India’s public policy sphere. Manjeet Kripalani and Neelam Deo founded the Gateway House, the only foreign policy think tank in the world started by two women, in Mumbai. Young women are increasingly taking up public policy as a career option. Many of the premier institutions in India like Azim Premji University are offering public policy courses and have a majority of women students. Thinks tanks too are recruiting more and more women. 

The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), a public policy think tank working out of Kochi, has 3 of 4 of its four focus centres led by women. In comparison to corporate boards in India where only 1 out of 7 members are women, 40 per cent of members in CPPR’s board are women. Majority of CPPR’s researchers are women and this in turn brings in the much needed gender insights into CPPR’s policy suggestions. 

Nissy Solomon, Senior Research Associate at CPPR, who is an economics postgraduate and holds a master’s degree in public policy from National Law School Bengaluru, says that “Public Policy is an emerging interdisciplinary field. Every policy needs to be looked at from a 360 degree perspective and it is important that the gender lens be applied.”

Sara John, a Senior Associate at CPPR says, “While working on a research study suggesting amendments to the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishments Act (Amendment) 2018, we noticed that there were various provisions in the current act which prevented women from working late evening shifts. As a woman, I could definitely relate more to the concerns raised by these working women and these played at the back of my mind while suggesting policy recommendations in the paper. The government has heeded these concerns and removed many restrictive policies and today shops in Kerala can remain open 24×7 and employ women throughout the day.”

Considering the rising role of think tanks in the public policy sphere, it is crucial to ensure that a diverse set of voices are contributing to its research agendas. There is a need to prioritise gender in all stages of research. Quotas aimed at fostering female leadership can be looked into. Data on gender diversity in think tanks should be readily available to track progress. Informal networks and mentorship opportunities that are often more accessible to male researchers need also to be provided to women researchers. All these must be part of broader systemic efforts aimed at enabling gender equality, and should ideally take intersectionality into consideration. 

Strong institutional contexts and robust funding is a must to combat entrenched attitudes that maintain gender discrimination and prevent women from taking leadership positions. Mao Zedong’s famous refrain that “Women Hold Up Half The Sky,” is a reminder that the women population is a resource that could be a game changer in informed policymaking in the coming years.

Neethu Nair is Assistant Manager- Communications at Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR). Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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Neethu R Nair is Assistant Manager- PR and Communications at CPPR. She is a Young India Fellow and has completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Liberal Studies from Ashoka University. She is a firm believer of inter-disciplinary learning and an urban policy enthusiast.

Neethu Nair
Neethu Nair
Neethu R Nair is Assistant Manager- PR and Communications at CPPR. She is a Young India Fellow and has completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Liberal Studies from Ashoka University. She is a firm believer of inter-disciplinary learning and an urban policy enthusiast.

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