Kumudini is a 22-year-old who lives in the Dharavi slums in Mumbai. Her father works at a tannery and her mother works as a domestic worker. They worked hard to send her to private school and then took out a loan against the little gold they had to pay for her studies. She aspired to work in the financial and accounting sector. All her life she was told: “Work hard, get good grades and learn English if you want a great job”. She got a job as a junior accountant in a tech unicorn. But within three months she got the pink slip with aggressive feedback from her boss: “You are not smart and qualified enough to work here. Working in a new age company means being able to think outside the box, being able to collaborate with different departments and provide creative solutions to complex accounting problems.” She never thought these were “qualifications” because the word in her mind meant a degree and at most a certification in Tally or Zoho. There are thousands of such stories of young people graduating from India’s antiquated university education system who are considered ‘unemployed’ for jobs of the future. This is a looming socio-economic and humanitarian crisis.
The world of work is changing. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are being used for routine tasks that no longer require much critical thinking, emotion or creativity. This includes functions such as basic accounting, data entry, customer relationship management, back office operations and even telephony. But these are areas that generate a significant portion of entry-level employment in the organized sector. The World Economic Forum, in its recently published report on the future of jobs, states that the top ten must-have skills for jobs of the future include emotional intelligence, storytelling, creative problem-solving and first-principle thinking. But here’s the problem: Exposure to these higher-order soft skills is largely exclusive to those who study at elite institutions or those who come from intellectually privileged backgrounds. They either have access to expensive training programs or internship opportunities that provide a strong foundation. As a result, people like Kumudini are often disqualified from meaningful opportunities or promotions.
We actually see a huge opportunity here for women to reach leadership positions in the workplace. If you think about it, most of the skills listed above are innate. Think about it. A housewife functions much like a CEO: she must apply a high EQ, plan finances like an entrepreneur and use creative thinking to solve everyday problems. 49% of India’s population are women and they must be empowered to become the driving force behind India’s growth story. However, let’s come back to Kumudini – her income bracket and perhaps that one level above it, represents a majority of the jobseeker population under 35 in India. The harsh truth is that the educational institutions they attend may not have the required infrastructure or resources to publicize 21st century skills or access to jobs in emerging and new age companies. That said, a number of forward-thinking and young founders are very open to hiring from Tier 2 and 3 institutions, as long as the candidates demonstrate the requisite wisdom, intelligence and ambition. Smart generalists with specialist skills are the most sought after – but few are available. This issue must be resolved for the benefit of both parties.
When the family income is limited in many cases, it is an unfortunate prejudice to invest more resources in the education of the male child on the assumption that it is he who will support the family and advance the bloodline, while the female child will to be cared for only before marriage. Therefore, although she may attend school or college, there may be no additional investment to acquire the required non-technical skills and fame that become a necessity to thrive in the new world of work. To change this, the parental mentality must first evolve. National awareness is needed about the new recruitment criteria and about giving equal opportunities to young women. Second, companies, NGOs and government skills development platforms should join forces to build non-technical skills training platforms with jobs targeting girls from under-resourced communities and/or those studying in Tier 2 and 3 -settings. Finally, teachers should play the role of mentor and spark the imagination of their female students to seek exciting careers and guide them through what it takes. Bridging the gender gap in the workplace requires strategic and holistic intervention, especially in the context of our rapidly changing world. No one should be left behind because of where they were born, what university they attend or what their gender is.
(Navya Naveli Nanda is a co-founder of Aara Health, a women-focused health technology company. Samyak Chakrabarty is an EdTech entrepreneur. He co-founded Nimaya Workverse with Navya.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.