3528881444_d5268b0f66_b Indian women going to vote. Al Jazeera English via Flickr CC Jeremy Sy and Elijah Johnston write: Indian women account for nearly a tenth of the world’s population, which represents a large and increasingly important market. To be successful, companies need to understand the tensions that define their lives today, and provide ways for them to realize their full economic and social potential in today’s India.

Globally, there is a growing emphasis on the importance of women not just as consumers, but as agents of economic and social change, as we discussed in our Women 2020 report. Indian women, of whom there are now more than 600 million, represent a particularly important group, both because of their considerable cumulative economic potential, and because of their potential impact on the future development of one of the world’s most important economies.

Balancing a tilted scale

While poverty rates remain high in India – estimates vary, but all peg India’s poverty rate at upwards of 20% of its population – the country’s rapid economic growth has created a class of consumers that’s confident, optimistic and empowered. According to The Futures Company’s Global MONITOR survey, 60% of Indian women believe that they are in control of their financial future – well ahead of the global average of 45%. As a result of this financial optimism, consumer confidence among Indian women is high: 51% say that they’re happy to incur short-term debt to allow them to buy the things they want (vs. 33% globally).

Indian women’s financial confidence and optimism are driven by the considerable economic gains they’ve made: Market research firm IMRB reports that among urban women in India, the average income increased by 111% between 2001 and 2010. This increase isn’t just improving the lives of individual women and households, it’s also empowering women to contribute in an increasingly significant way to the growth of India’s economy: Everstone Capital projects that women as consumers will make India 25% richer by 2025.

While this number is impressive, it would be higher if India managed to address the economic and social barriers that prevent Indian women from achieving their full potential. For example, despite the great strides in income made in the last decade, Indian women earn just 64 Rupees for every 100 Rupees earned by their male counterparts, and they hold just 5% of boardroom positions in the country.

Launching initiatives

Some companies have begun to launch initiatives aimed at helping women climb the economic ladder. Goldman Sachs, for example, has made India a key part of its 10,000 Women global initiative, which is meant to provide women entrepreneurs with a business and management education, mentoring, and access to capital. They recently celebrated their 44th graduating class in India. Initiatives like this are critical in ensuring economic progress for India’s women, but they’re not enough: If Indian women are to realize their full potential as agents of change and progress, the social barriers to this need to be addressed as well.

While Indian society is changing, it’s doing so much more slowly than its economy. The pace of change on gender issues is even slower. Women continue to face social and security issues because of deeply entrenched views on the role of women in households and society, and in relation to men. Partly as a result of these views, four women are raped and nine molested just in Delhi every day, leading a group of 370 gender specialists from around the world to vote India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries.

In Part 2, we look at how social conditions are changing for women in India today, and the opportunities they create for companies in India.

The image at the top of the post shows Indian women on their way to vote. It is published by Al Jazeera English on Flickr under a Creative Commons licence, as is used here with thanks.

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