Award-Winning Journalist Ellen Barry on India's Missing Women Workers

During her first year as the New Delhi-based South Asia Bureau Chief of the New York Times, Ellen Barry noticed something unusual when she traveled in North India: There didn’t seem to be many women around.

“I began to think that they weren’t anywhere,” Barry said. “When I began to hear stories about women dropping out of the labor force, it made sense.”

This observation culminated in an extraordinary series of articles in which Barry explored why tens of millions of women in India — one of the world’s most dynamic economies — were no longer working. To illustrate this phenomenon, Barry framed narratives around individual Indian women whose efforts to join the labor force encountered both organized resistance and practical difficulty. In recognition of her work, Asia Society honored Barry with the Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia.

On Tuesday, Barry accepted her award in a ceremony at Asia Society's New York headquarters that included remarks by Seymour Topping, a legendary former New York Times correspondent known for covering China’s civil war in the 1940s. In praising Barry, Topping called women's equality "the defining issue of our era."

In few places is this struggle more acute than in India: Among G-20 countries, only Saudi Arabia has a lower percentage of women who work — a problem that acts as a drag on the country's ambitions. A largely rural nation where much of the population works in agriculture, India is attempting to modernize by growing its manufacturing and service sectors, emulating a process that has lifted hundreds of millions in other parts of Asia out of poverty. Realizing this goal requires Indian women to leave home and work in factories. But entrenched gender norms that require many women to seek permission to leave home has stymied India's economic potential — and caused tremendous hardship for many of the country's most vulnerable citizens.

In a conversation on Tuesday with Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, Barry noted that poor families would often grant girls permission to migrate for jobs — only to have them leave work in order to marry within months. Many have concluded that sending their daughters to work in factories is too financially risky.

"A son is a credit [in India] while a daughter is a debit," said Barry.

During the course of her research into India's missing women workers, Barry embedded herself in remote villages and worked to earn the trust of her subjects. But the deliberate nature of her reporting paid dividends — her stories revealed a more intimate portrait of a country than foreign correspondence typically yields.

“It was an idiosyncratic project,” Barry said, referring to her reporting on India’s women. “We’re expanding our perimeter as journalists and finding new ways to tell the reader about the world.”

Watch the complete video of Barry's Asia Society appearance below:

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Senior Content Manager at Asia Society. Previously, he worked as an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he helped launch and then oversee the China Channel.