India’s feminist advertising sends positive message but is it all Bollywood?

It’s hard not to be touched by a TV commercial for Ariel detergent that went viral this year in India.

An elderly father watches his daughter juggling chores after a hard day’s work – tea for the husband, tidying up after her son, dinner for the whole family – while talking urgently into her smartphone about an office presentation. Guilt-stricken, the father experiences an epiphany. The next morning, he shocks his wife by doing a batch of laundry (with Ariel detergent of course).

The commercial is among a wave of advertisements that are selling a message of female empowerment in India – from jewellery adverts that show career women standing up to male bosses to a coffee-maker commercial that ends with a woman saying: “I am not a kitchen appliance.”

This new line of messaging points tellingly to the vast opportunities for the Indian economy embodied by greater female participation in the workforce. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that India would enjoy a 10 per cent boost in GDP per head by 2020 by halving its yawning gender workforce participation gap.

At the moment, less than a third of working-age Indian women have or are looking for jobs, according to the World Bank, compared with 64 per cent in Thailand, about 60 per cent in Brazil and nearly two-thirds in China.

Surprisingly, the female workforce participation rate has even fallen sharply during India’s spectacular boom, dropping 10 percentage points between 2005 and 2014 – a loss of more than 20 million women in the labour force.

How can we account for that steep drop? Indian female labour participation in fact declines as education and family income rise, according to the ILO. One reason for that is good news: more girls are staying in school. But another is enduring perceptions (only slowly eroding) that a family’s social status is enhanced if women stay at home.

Such entrenched patriarchal norms represent a drag on growth. China – India’s rival in Asia’s superpower race – is an important point of comparison. The East Asian giant may be facing problems associated with a low birth rate, while India’s fertility rate of 2.45 births per women hits the demographic sweet spot. But China has been able to offset some of its population challenges by harnessing the power of its women.

And India has its own demographic time-bomb: the United Nations Population Fund says India’s population of 60 and older will triple from roughly 100 million today to 300 million in 2050, a crushing burden for a nation struggling to achieve developed world status.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has implemented positive labour reforms but progress is slow. A handful of role models, such as Naina Lal Kidwai, group general manager at HSBC India, help to change perceptions. But others – notably a string of Bollywood actresses who have declined to embrace feminism – may be holding back progress.

It may be that positive role models can be found among the women depicted in India’s wave of assertive advertisements. But these commercials are stories – in the case of Ariel, a classically-structured fable – designed to sell products. It is ironic that the target audience is India’s growing pool of urban middle-class women with growing disposable income – the very group that is held back the most, at least in work, by male-dominated norms.

Times will surely change, driven by the opportunities that India’s women represent, and the feminist adverts may end up changing India for the good, simply by virtue of hammering home the right message throughout society. But it is important that people are not lulled into inertia because the adverts have spread an illusion of change yet to arrive.