Op-Ed

Why Ivanka Trump’s visit to India is good for women in and out of the workforce there

The first daughter and senior adviser to President Trump is making a visit, with much fanfare, to an entrepreneurship summit in Hyderabad this week

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and advisor to U.S. President Ivanka Trump arrive at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad on November 28, 2017. The Global Entrepreneurship Summit will take place from 28th to 30th of November.(MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ivanka Trump arrived in India Tuesday, leading the U.S. delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit taking place in Hyderabad from November 28 to 30. This year’s summit, the eighth in an ongoing series begun during the Obama administration, bears the theme, “Women First, Prosperity for All.”

Setting aside the incongruity of President Trump’s daughter leading a delegation to a country headed by an unmarried, childless prime minister who has famously emphasized his lack of family to promote into government positions, the Hyderabad summit has a real shot at elevating awareness of an issue that deserves attention: women in the Indian workforce. Despite India’s rapid economic growth over the course of the past 15 years, women’s labor force participation has actually declined.

India has much to gain economically by getting more women in the workforce. And in the increasingly urgent national quest for job creation, entrepreneurs are a source of fresh ideas, industries, and jobs. So if the media spotlight brought by Ivanka’s delegation can help India’s women entrepreneurs gain attention and investment for their efforts, the Indian economy in a larger sense can benefit. And what benefits the world’s second most populous country benefits a large chunk of the world’s women.

India, currently the world’s seventh-largest economy at market exchange rates, according to International Monetary Fund data, faces enormous economic challenges. Though more than 160 million Indian citizens were lifted out of extreme poverty from 2004-05 to 2011-12, according to World Bank data, the country is still home to more than 260 million who live in extreme poverty.

Despite its large gross domestic product of more than $2 trillion, India’s massive population of 1.3 billion means that in terms of per capita income, the country ranks among the world’s bottom third. This explains why successive Indian governments have focused on higher economic growth rates in order to lift more people out of poverty, raise standards of living, and expand job opportunities all the way around.

In 2013, the International Labor Organization reported a strange finding: that even amid a period of economic growth and rising wages in India, women were dropping out of the workforce, from around 37 percent in 2004-05 down to 29 percent in 2009-10. Two years later, in a major study, McKinsey Global Institute found that attaining gender parity in the labor force in India “would have a larger economic impact there than in any other region in the world — $700 billion of added GDP by 2025.” The report’s focus on the opportunity cost of unequal labor force participation highlighted just how great the economic impact was to the country writ large.

So a spotlight on women’s work speaks to a very real national issue in India.

There’s one other reason this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit with its focus on women comes at an urgent time: the challenge of job creation.

India has a youthful demographic profile, with around one million new entrants to the workforce each month. Those one million each month need jobs. But the most recent data available on job creation suggests a worrisome picture, with new concerns emerging about the prospect of jobless growth.

To make matters worse, the economic effects of last year’s demonetization — the removal from circulation of 86 percent of India’s currency notes — and the overly-complicated introduction of a new national goods and services tax have both taken a toll on growth. Growth has been slowing for the past five quarters, now dipping below six percent. Economists expect growth to pick back up, but for now, it’s clear that the economic uptick and the jobs India needs are not yet there.

This is where entrepreneurship comes in. Entrepreneurs can take an idea and create whole new industries in fields never previously imagined. Some of India’s best-known technology firms are the work of entrepreneurs: think of the information technology industry, for starters. India has also excelled in pharmaceuticals and biotech. India’s top biotech entrepreneur, the dynamic Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, started Biocon by making enzymes for brewing beer. Over the years, she transformed her company into the leading biotech firm in India, and now has a presence in Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Priya Sharma, the co-founder of Zest Money, lauded the government’s efforts on entrepreneurship. “It shows that the government is taking the initiative … and supporting women entrepreneurship is now becoming part of the government’s agenda,” she said.

Ivanka touched on this theme in her speech as well. “We must ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to capital, access to networks and mentors and access to equitable laws,” she said, adding that India’s economy stands to grow by $150 billion in three years if it can shrink its gender gap by just 50 percent. Watch her complete speech here.

So at a time when the issue of women in the workforce and overall job creation are top of mind for India’s economy more generally, the Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad focuses on both. If the presence of a U.S. delegation, and the media frenzy that will follow Ivanka to Hyderabad, can help raise attention and interest in pitches from India’s women entrepreneurs, then that’s a win for the Indian economy at just the time it needs one.

Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be published in January by Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter here.

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