Mahima Dutt Sharma rolls her eyes when men make excuses to gawk at her inside the booth where she checks tickets at India’s only interstate train station run entirely by women.
“Even though all the information is displayed on boards, they keep coming again and again with silly queries,” she told AFP at Gandhinagar junction in Jaipur, where female station masters and clerks draw astonished looks.
“They are not used to seeing women handling such jobs, so I don’t really blame them.”
These trailblazers are not just breaking new ground in conservative Rajasthan but upending social norms in India that assume a women’s proper place is in the home.
India is one of the world’s fastest growing major economies but also has one of the lowest rates of female employment, and the trend is worsening.
Fewer and fewer women are entering the workforce, particularly in rural areas where most Indians live. Women are staying in school longer, but even two-thirds of those with university degrees are not working, the World Bank says.
This helps explain the fascination with the all-women crew “manning” Gandhinagar as superintendents, conductors and station masters.
Urban subway networks in major Indian cities may have train carriages designated for women, but that is less about empowerment than a measure to prevent sexual harassment.
Yet roughly 7,000 passengers passing through the major junction at Gandhinagar — including Indians from remote tribal corners of the desert region — come into direct contact with these pioneering women every day.
Many passengers travel from villages where women are rarely seen outdoors, let alone managing a major state-run institution from the ground up.
Women even staff the bulk of the security detail that patrols the station, muscling in on jobs still considered in many parts of the world to be the realm of men.
Seeing women make the trains run on time and round up troublemakers in smart government uniforms remains a leap too far for many men, suddenly forced to interact with females outside their comfort zone.
Neelam Jatav said her job as a station supervisor had undeniably given her “new wings to fly”, but she still had to deal with men sceptical of a female authority figure.
“Ever since I started working here, I have noticed men keep trying to peep in from here and there,” she told AFP.
“It feels really awkward, because I am just doing my job.”
But in statistical terms she is an oddity in India, where women contribute just 17 percent to national GDP, less than half the global average.
Economists warn India cannot reach double-digit growth if it does not reverse falling women’s participation in jobs.
The McKinsey Global Institute found in 2015 that India could increase its GDP by up to 60 percent by 2025 just by bridging the gender gap.
Most Indian women are not working at train stations but undertaking domestic work or childcare. Surveys show that Indians expect women to stay at home, and social taboos disapprove of women earning their own income or travelling to workplaces alone.
Even women with jobs are often expected to give them up when they get married or have children.
But slow inroads are being made.
At Gandhinagar, the station is equipped with sanitary napkin vending machines, a huge stride in a country where any discussion of menstruation is off limits.
There is also talk of a creche, still a rarity in India, so women can bring their children to work.
Saumya Mathur, the head of Jaipur’s railway division and a mother of two, said she hoped young girls passing through the station would take note of those in charge and “start believing in themselves”.
“Just a little push is needed to make a girl feel that she can do what she wishes to do. She can dream of doing things which earlier she would not have dreamt of,” Mathur said.