As a renowned economist, Dr Shamika Ravi wears many hats. She has been working closely in the area of development challenges in India. A professor and researcher, she currently serves as the director of research at Brookings India.
She is also a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. With her research focussed on several significant issues including health, education and gender inequality, the 42-year-old shoulders grave responsibilities.
SheThePeople.TV spoke with Shamika Ravi about her role as director of research, her focus areas, being an advisor to the PM, and more. Some edited snippets from the interview.
What drew you to economics and a career in it? How important do you think it is for young girls to see women like yourself in leadership positions in a field like economics which is perceived as a traditionally male bastion?
My class XI teacher at DPS RK Puram drew my interest in economics for the first time. The next few steps were very predictable for a person of my age cohort in India. I went to Lady Shri Ram College (1996) and then attended Delhi School of Economics for Master’s Program (1998). There, I got a perspective into Economics research career in India. But to be honest, I only began to enjoy the subject when I enrolled for a PhD in NYU. I had the good fortune to work closely with several inspiring scholars there. Jonathan Morduch, Bill Easterly, Andrew Schotter and the legendary William Baumol have made a lasting impression on my worldview.
What I did not see at the top economics departments, however, were enough women faculty.
I was surrounded by extremely smart people, but mostly smart men. You think you are gender-blind, but in reality one begins to internalise a highly unequal world at that level. The reality kicks in hardest when you have a child as a young economics faculty. There is no support system to fall back on! You have to put up a fight at every step of the way. I think this is why most female economists are battle hardened (if they survive) at the top.
It is crucial for young girls to see female mentors because it might encourage them to persevere ahead, despite difficulties. I have been teaching at Indian School of Business for last 13 years, and sometimes in lighter moments the male students have remarked I am too tough on them, but “nicer” to the girl students during CP (class participation when students are graded on their vocal presence). It is an early training for future leadership roles. So, I like to encourage them to speak up.
I firmly believe that we need more women in the field of economics (and also many other fields) – but this will only begin to happen when we equalise the costs to men and women in these specific careers and in our society as a whole.
As the Director of Research at Brookings India, which are the focus areas that you are personally keen on?
I ensure that the work of all our scholars is completely aligned with the Brookings values of Quality, Independence and Impact. These are not mere words, but are well-defined concepts enshrined into our everyday work. For example, all our research is peer-reviewed before publication. The motivation is simple – future growth of the Indian economy cannot happen without serious investments into human capital. No country has enjoyed long sustained growth on weak human capital foundations. Historically, investments and innovations in India’s health and education sector have remained limited.
As an individual scholar of the institution, my personal focus is now on human capital development in India. This includes health, education and gender.
In your work on microfinance, how do you feel this is a way through which women in India can be empowered to combat the patriarchy?
It is important, first of all, to remember that there are no silver bullets when it comes to economic and social development. But the massive amount of evidence that the experimentation of two decades in microfinance has yielded shows that it makes good economic and social sense to target women for micro-entrepreneurship development. Economic empowerment of women through small financial instruments can have long-term impacts on their well-being and their children’s.
My own research shows that female borrowers are more empowered in their health-seeking behaviour than other women in similar conditions. There is also research which shows the strong demonstration effect that working women have on school retention rate of girl students. So, there is much evidence which can help in policy interventions to combat patriarchy, while we continue to explore newer pathways.
Our female labour force remains an under-exploited potential for our country.
You wrote about seeing a culture of growth come through in India, how do you see women as equal participants in this growth, and what still needs to be put in place to encourage this?
I do not see women as equal participants in India’s growth today. This is why I think it is one of our most under-exploited potentials. We are locked in a bad equilibrium which is also unfortunately, a very stable equilibrium. To get out of this, we will need policy shocks. These can take the form of legislations (women’s reservations, maternity benefits, required board directorships, etc.) and concerted government policy efforts aimed at reducing the cost of economic participation by women (safer workplaces, public transport, well-lit streets, targeted policing, scholarships, hospital protocols targeting women patients, awareness programmes etc.). But the larger problem cannot be addressed by governments alone. The malaise runs deep and will require small social revolutions all around.
This is where I derive comfort in the fact that several states (Himachal, Kerala, Goa, Sikkim) and sectors (banking, aviation, etc.) within our own country lead the way towards gender parity, and provide a blueprint for others to follow. We don’t necessarily need to look towards the Scandinavians for inspiration.
You’re also Member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. What changes have you seen over the last four years? Also, what do you think the future holds for economic policymaking?
I think the biggest change I see is the massive effort towards improving governance in India. The country has been held back for decades due to extensive leakages and corruption at many levels. The government of PM Modi is making a valiant effort to change that culture of corruption. This is happening through laws (insolvency and bankruptcy Law), by making the executive more professional as well as through sheer demonstration effect from senior leadership. These are enormously praiseworthy and can go a long way in changing the way India functions.
However, a lot more needs to be done for the nation to realise her true economic potential – raise government capacity (serious administrative reforms), further reform our factor markets (land, labour etc.), massive efforts towards raising human productivity (invest and innovate in the higher education sector) and accelerate the health reforms started under Ayushman Bharat with focus on improving quality of public health. More broadly, economic policymaking in India will now have to more towards its microeconomic foundations instead of excessive focus on merely studying macroeconomic trends. This is of paramount importance if we are to understand and change underlying factors and move towards precision policy-making with real time data.
In your paper, ‘Women Voters in Indian Democracy: A Silent Revolution’, you analysed the statistics and the importance of political participation of women in politics. Recent studies show there’s been considerable rise in women voters. With 2019 elections underway, how can this participation increase further and what are the factors we’re looking at in making this possible?
Ours was the first comprehensive study that documented the significant rise in female voter participation – across all states of India. This was not an outcome of a concerted effort from government or the ECI, that is why we term is a “self empowerment” and a “silent revolution”. This trend has only become stronger in the last two decades with better connectivity and out-of-state election policing, etc.
Yet, at a more fundamental level, we know that a significant number of women “electors” are missing – this is partly because they are not registered on the electoral rolls, but also partly because these women do not exist in our society. They are missing from our society because many die at birth, many die in infancy, many die in adolescence, very many die during childbirth, many die due to lack of access to quality healthcare in older age groups etc. So, the electoral outcomes only reflect the preferences of those who survive.
To make our democracy more gender representative, we have to make sure that more and more women survive in our society.
Last year, you wrote a paper analysing some of the key factors that can explain the phenomenon of childhood violence globally. How do you think countries can swiftly work in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to end all forms of violence against children globally?
Violence in childhood is a serious health, social and human rights concern globally, there is, however, little understanding about the factors that explain the various forms of violence in childhood. This paper uses data on childhood violence for 10,042 individuals from four countries. There is no gender difference in the overall incidence of childhood violence.
The data shows that 78% of girls and 79% of boys have suffered some form of violence before the age of 18 years.
Odds of violence are higher among richer households, among individuals who have attended school and among individuals who have been married or in marriage-like arrangements. Individuals who justify wife beating have a significantly higher likelihood of having faced violence themselves. There is a limited understanding of the factors that explain violence in childhood. Different countries face different kinds of childhood violence. Acknowledging and accurately measuring the problem are the first steps towards solving them.
Most perpetrators of violence against children – physical, emotional and sexual – are people known to them in their homes and community, and not strangers.
You deal with several organisations – small and big – across industries. What transition have you noticed when we talk about women’s participation in policy making and economies?
For the first time in history we have women as chief economists of World Bank, IMF, OECD and perhaps several other important institutions too. We have also seen that in the current government of India, women hold some of the most critical portfolios. These are encouraging signs of change and acceptance. But so much more needs to be done!
How important is it to have women at the table in economic policy making, and why must organisations and governments be aware of what women bring to the table when drawing up advisory committees?
Research in corporate finance has shown that when more women are inducted into a firm’s leadership position (boards), the governance of the firm improves. These are based on the natural experiment setting where countries enforced high/stipulated women board membership overnight. Most firms, naturally, struggled to fill these positions since the pipeline of women corporate leaders did not exist to fill all the sudden vacancies. This bears an important analogy for women leaders in politics in most countries today.
Every society must struggle to create equal opportunities for its women citizens. Only then can we compare the outcomes and know whether men and women have distinct preferences and interests or are there innate differences in abilities.
To me – equality in opportunity is much more important than equality in outcome.
While gender inequality is a serious issue prevailing around the world, India records the highest level of gender bias and unequal opportunities. We’re also number one in the gender wage gap. Inequality being one of your research areas, what reforms do you suggest in order to dismantle this?
I am not sure I buy the assertion that India records the highest level of gender bias and unequal opportunities. I will need to see these statistics to make some sense out of it. There are many dubious stats out there based on highly unrepresentative samples and hypothetical questions. That said, we do have a serious gender inequality problem at hand. But beyond all India statistics, we will need to isolate the problem at the state and district level (given the enormous variations) to get a real handle on it.
Wage inequality is a sticky problem – because beyond legislation, enforcement becomes costly. The dismal fact is that every country has wage inequality – US, Japan, Denmark – though the extent of disparity varies. Several research, however, points to the fact that it is not just blind discrimination, but one that is caused due to bearing children.
I do believe, though, that maternity benefits will only work if we make paternity benefits mandatory with it.
Any maternity benefit (it used to be three months before, and now it is six months of paid employment) will lead to distorting the labour market away from women. Firms internalise such costs at the time of employment. So they will substitute women workers with men workers, to overcome the additional costs. By making paternity mandatory – there is no distortion.
Besides this, the list of legislations and policy initiatives outlined above would go a long way in addressing the gender inequality in the country.