Kumudini is a 22-year-old living at Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. Her father works at a leather tannery and her mother as a domestic help. They worked hard to send her to a private school and then took a loan against the little gold they had to pay for her college. She aspired to work in the finance 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 three months later, she was given the pink slip with an aggressive feedback from her boss: “You’re not smart and qualified enough to work here. Working in a new-age company means being able to think out of the box, being able to collaborate with different departments and bring creative solutions to complex accounting problems.” She never imagined these to be “qualifications” as the word in her mind meant a degree and at maximum, a certification in Tally or Zoho. There are thousands of such stories of youth graduating from India’s outdated college education system who are being considered ‘unemployable’ for jobs of the future. This is an impending socio-economic and humanitarian crisis.
The world of work is changing. Emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence are being employed for rote tasks that no longer require much critical thought, emotion or creativity. This includes functions like basic accounting, data entry, customer relationship management, back-office operations and even tele-calling. But these are areas that generate a significant chunk of entry-level employment in the organised 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-principles thinking. But here’s the problem: exposure to these higher-order soft skills is largely exclusive to those studying in elite institutions or those who are from intellectually-privileged backgrounds. They either have access to expensive training programmes or internship opportunities which provide a strong foundation. As a result of this, the likes of Kumudini often end up being disqualified for meaningful opportunities or promotions.
We actually see a massive opportunity here for women to reach leadership positions in the workplace. If you think about it, most of the skills mentioned above are innate among them. Think about it: a home-maker functions much like a CEO: she has to apply high EQ, plan finances like an entrepreneur, and use creative thinking to solve daily problems. 49% of India’s population is women and they must be empowered to become drivers of India’s growth story. However, let’s come back to Kumudini – her income bracket and the one above that represents a majority of the under-35 job-seeking population in India. The harsh truth is that the educational institutions they attend may not have the required infrastructure or resources to provide exposure to 21st century skills or job access in emerging and new-age enterprises. Having said this, a number of progressive and young founders are very open to hiring from Tier 2 and 3 institutions as long as the candidates display the required wisdom, intelligence and ambition. Smart generalists with specialist skills are most sought after – but very few are available. This problem needs to be solved to benefit both sides.
When family income is limited in many cases, it is an unfortunate bias due to which more resources are invested in the education of the male child on the assumption that he will support the family. The female child is to be merely groomed for marriage. Therefore, while she may get to attend school or college, additional investments may not be made for her to gain the required non-technical skills and exposure which are becoming a necessity to thrive in the new world of work. For any change to happen, the mindset of parents has to evolve. Nationwide awareness is required on the new hiring criteria and on giving young women an equal chance. Secondly, corporations, NGOs and government skill development platforms must join hands to build non-technical skills training platforms with job linkages aimed at girls from under-resourced communities and/or those studying in Tier 2 and 3 institutions. Lastly, teachers must play the role of mentors and ignite the imagination of their female students into seeking exciting careers and guiding them on what it takes. Bridging the gender gap at work requires a strategic and holistic intervention especially in the context of our fast-changing world. No one must be left behind because of where they’re born, what college they go to or what gender they are.
(Navya Naveli Nanda is co-founder, Aara Health, a women-centric health tech company. Samyak Chakrabarty is an EdTech entrepreneur. He co-founded Nimaya Workverse with Navya.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.