India has been developing fast, but not always equitably or inclusively. Our development model is very much a work in progress and deep-rooted challenges remain.

The biggest issue we face is the empowerment of women.

Across the world, educating and empowering women has proven time and again to be the catalyst for rapid socio-economic growth. Conversely, societies where women are repressed are among the most backward.

India seems to be somewhere in-between.

Women in India make up 7.5% of the world’s total population. While certain development indicators show their quality of life is improving – maternal mortality rates declining; literacy rates increasing; more women gaining access to healthcare and education – the pace of change is heartbreakingly slow.

India ranks 113 out of 135 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. According to India’s 2011 census, the sex ratio for children under six was 914 females to 1,000 males, a disturbing decline from 927 in 2001. The ranking of Indian women in economic empowerment is 0.3, where 1.0 means equality.

This is a dangerous state of affairs for any society. Denying women opportunities to realise their potential is a waste of human capital and bar to economic progress.

Women are undoubtedly the foundation of the basic unit of society – the family. Even in traditional roles they demonstrate great innovation, skill, intelligence, hard work and commitment.

If we can harness these attributes effectively, India’s growth can be more inclusive and equitable. The education of women is therefore key.

But in a country where nearly 70% of the population lives in rural areas, access to educational opportunities is limited. Moreover, poverty puts the girl child at a greater disadvantage. Add to this the social attitudes towards women, and it is obvious that we need a multi-pronged approach if we are to achieve education for women worldwide.

This is where technology – or e-education – can help. E-infrastructure can deliver relevant education to both sexes in an efficient and equitable manner, enabling our youth to leapfrog into the internet age.

When we educate and empower one woman, we set off a chain reaction that transforms the life of her family and the community she lives in. An exemplary model is the network of trained Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), created under the National Rural Health Mission, who have played a crucial role in improving the health of women and children across India.

Vocational training is equally important to women’s economic independence. The inspirational efforts of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, founded by Ela Bhatt, and other successful self-help groups, have sowed the spirit of entrepreneurship in hundreds of women.

Sewa’s women members are trailblazers, redefining themselves as they add value to their families and the nation. This kind of female empowerment can transform India.

Societal perceptions of females and their role are often the biggest barriers to change, because they shape women’s perception of themselves. Across all strata of Indian society, people still believe that women are capable of performing only certain types of jobs and that marriage must take precedence over career.

This mind-set, common to both men and women, must change. We must focus on the girl child and help her escape the traditional stereotypes that stifle her potential.

Take women in science as an example. The prejudice is that women are less capable of understanding science, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I faced seemingly insurmountable road-blocks on my path to building Biocon into the institution it is today.

As a young woman with hardly any work experience in a male-dominated business environment, it was challenging to set up a biotechnology enterprise to say the least. I can credit my success to my education and upbringing which helped instil a strong sense of self-belief and a “never-say-die” spirit in me.

Today, I am proud that Biocon is an equal-opportunity employer where women thrive in every role, including scientific research. While we do not believe in hiring women just because they are women, we do provide the facilities and environment they need to make them feel empowered.

I believe that by neglecting the development of women, we will compromise the future of the Indian nation. By investing in women and their education, we are investing in our present and in our future.

Author: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is chair and managing director of Biocon Ltd., a biotechnology company and  a foundation member of the World Economic Forum.

Image: Children do schoolwork as a teacher conducts lessons inside a bus converted into a school REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder