Women’s leadership in India’s development sector: Furthering UN goal to promote gender equality

By Anjali Makhija, Ellora Mubashir*

India is a large developing market economy with the world’s second largest population. As a result, the economy is the fifth largest by GDP, but the per capita GDP is 139 in the world. Similarly, India is the third largest in purchasing power parity (PPP), but the per capita PPP is 118 globally. The country’s resolute vision is to discard its long-held tag as a developing country and become a developed country at the earliest. A myriad of challenges are involved in achieving this, but it is possible with the wholehearted participation from each of the stakeholders, a primary segment of which are the 586,469,174 women of India.1 Women have been second-class citizens of society since time immemorial from the community level to the highest level. The Gender Development Index measures gender gaps in human development achievements by accounting for disparities between women and men in three basic dimensions of human development: health, knowledge, and living standards, using the same component indicators as in the Human Development Index. India ranks medium on this, at level 129 of 189 countries.2 Only when this talent and productive potential of women is unleashed can India become a world leader.

Though our environment has transformed in a way that provides much better opportunities for girls and women to grow and blossom in their respective fields, there is much more to be desired. Women still struggle to make their presence felt in various domains. Women are not at the head of the table due to various constraints, as the system is lacking in providing them with an inclusive environment. Hence, there is paucity of women-headed organizations in India and in other developed nations as well. “Women head only 1–14 percent of the nonprofits with the largest budgets in the US, and 24 percent of the top 100 nonprofits in the UK.”3 A 2019 research study published in Harvard Business Review found that women outscored men on seventeen of the nineteen capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.4

Rural women in India have tremendous potential to demonstrate leadership. Being the largest segment among women in the country, their development would have a revolutionary impact and create the base for India to move upward. Education of these women is a key to their empowerment, through which they can gain access to skills, access to government programs, and voice their rights.

Gender bias manifests in many forms of insidious, institutional, and often unconscious personal stereotypes. The New Education Policy 2020 talks about including gender equality in the curriculum. The policy envisages building the nation’s capacity to provide equitable quality education especially for girls. It proposes to constitute a “gender inclusion fund” to implement priorities for assisting female children in gaining access to education.

Women in top management

Change must start at the top. The boards of development organizations play an imperative role in giving a strategic direction to their work. Women board members can provide prominent guidance to take women-centric issues forward and provide a balanced direction to organization mandates. Existing boards of not‑for‑profit organizations must have a fair representation of women. Boards need to make women’s inclusiveness, along with nurturing a sense of belonging, non‑negotiable core values in their organizations.

Women-led organizations are typically much more democratic in their functioning with more focus on motivation and interpersonal relations. Women leaders will create a balance between people-oriented and task-oriented skills to demonstrate dynamism and confidence in leading a mixed group of men and women team members.

Work policies and programs

Policies and practices must be in place for women’s voices to be heard and their achievements to be celebrated, including at the community level. S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) has a gender policy that operates at two levels (1) On the administrative level, there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and policies are in place to promote a safe environment for women to work in the organization, and (2) Women-centric programs are promoted at the village level. For a grassroots-level organization, it is important to have women leaders at all levels within the organization—in the middle and grassroots teams as well, because they have a direct interface with the community.

Promoting a work-life balance for women and providing incentives to them to continue to work is imperative. Research has shown that even women who have completed skills programs and obtain jobs tend to drop out often in response to family pressures, changing social norms around marriage, work and household duties.5 These issues will have to be part of the agenda to create an environment where women are able to meet the obligations at family and work level in a balanced way. An environment within the organization that is conducive to work increases the commitment and performance levels of teams and in turn benefits the organization. “As organizations’ structure effective leadership development systems for women, and women realize leadership development practices in their organizations, they will likely experience stronger organizational connections that may well lead to increased organization commitment.”6

Leadership at community level

In the grassroots programs, rural women must be encouraged to take individual and collective action to increase their confidence. Many rural development organizations such as Sehgal Foundation works with women farmers to build their knowledge and capacities and has women-centric programs such as water management, life skills awareness, creation of safe environment for girls to go to schools, health awareness, and mobilization of women to engage in village governance.

Women role models have to be identified in the villages in a planned manner using dialogues and trainings. Examples help motivate more women to come forward and participate in collective action. Economic independence increases women’s confidence and decision-making. Women have to be encouraged and supported to launch an enterprise, engage in economically viable activity, and form self-help groups.

Mobilizing elected women sarpanches and panchayat members is essential. “A huge mass of women leaders still remains disengaged and silent, leaving major portions of their responsibilities to male relatives or fellow male gram panchayat leaders.”7 This defeats the very purpose of their election. It is thus important to organize this female force and instill in them the knowledge and leadership skills so they can contribute fully to the village development and undertake their responsibilities effectively.

Women in rural areas have limited exposure to the use of technology. Grassroots- based community radio station Alfaz-e Mewat, in Nuh district of Haryana, engages with women and provides informative programs. With this platform to voice their concerns, women hear programs related to them and access information in the vicinity of their homes or community. Use of mobiles and information technology can trigger a sea of change and give women a sense of confidence and pride, which has the potential to boost their leadership capabilities.


Sensitization activities on gender-related issues need to be promoted for men, women, youth, and also in the education system to prevent discrimination against women and girls. Proactive strategies and programs need to be put in place to garner participation of women in the mainstream. This will lead to balanced decision-making within organizations and at the village level, including better participation by women in household-level decisions. Gender-sensitized women and men taking on leadership would be a fine legacy to offer coming generations.

Concerted efforts need to be made at all levels to empower women and make their strong presence felt in the development sector. Opportunities need to be created at various levels in organizations. Programs need to be made for inclusive leadership spirit among grassroots women. A comprehensive approach followed in the development sector will pave the way for others to emulate and further the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 to promote women’s equality.

*Anjali Makhija is Chief Operating Officer, Ellora Mubashir is communications specialist with S M Sehgal Foundation


1 See https://www.census2011.co.in/.

2 See http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/GDI (UNDP-Human Development Report).

3 Tara Rao, India Development Review, August 16, 2018.

4 Zenger, Jack, and Folkman, Joseph, Women score higher than men in most leadership skills, June 25, 2019, Harvard Business Review, Gender.

5 Dixon, A., Women in India’s economic growth: speeches and Scripts, March 16, 2018, The World Bank.

6 Hopkins M Margret, D O Neil, Angela M.P., and D. Bilimoria; Women leadership development strategic practices for women and organizations; Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2008, Vol 60, No 4, 348–365.

7 Goswami, D. Elected women leadership of gram panchayats: critical roles in COVID-19 response, posted on India Water Portal, 6.17. 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s