If on the one hand we are seeing women making a slow but steady foray into hitherto all-male domains, on the other, we are faced with the phenomenon of more and more women quitting their jobs, resulting in gender imbalance in workplaces. This is a cause for serious concern and governments and corporations across the world are grappling with the challenge of fixing this imbalance.
In the Indian context, the economy is booming but millions of Indian women are dropping out of work. A shocking 20 million Indian women quit jobs between 2004-05 and 2011-12. While 24 million men joined the work force between 2004-5 and 2009-10, the number of women in the workforce dropped by 21.7 million. A study by researchers from the World Bank with the help of successive rounds of the National Sample Survey Organisation and Census data reveals that the female workforce in India declined from 42 per cent in 1993-94 to 31 per cent in 2011-12.
How do we ensure that such an enormous exodus of women is arrested across the country, including villages? While organising day-care facilities, flexible working hours, and increased maternity benefits is extremely important to ensure mental satisfaction and comfort, is that good enough?
The more pertinent question is whether these “Modern India” solutions are applicable and equally successful deeper in our country as well? Archaic social norms and a patriarchal society force women to quit work in India after marriage and motherhood. Worse still are the skewed gender relations and biases in India.
According to the World Bank study, the largest chunk of dropouts (53%) happened among women aged 15-24 and living in villages. The study says that casual workers (mainly women), quit a job when there is rise in the income of the regular earners (husband, father, brother). The issue here is more deep-rooted than it appears. Women are almost trained to think that they are better off at home than at the workplace or even balancing work and home. At every stage, women are made to believe that certain things are only meant for men. Though today’s urban woman is far more confident, ambitious and assertive, we have a larger issue at hand, which includes women from across the country and social strata.
For instance, American TV host Oprah Winfrey’s grandmother was a maid, and her only dream for Oprah was that she became a maid, too, and was taken care of by some good White folks! But Oprah’s dream was different. She was determined to pursue what her grandmother could never dream of. It isn’t different for millions of Indian women.
In the Indian context, the whole mindset needs to change, beginning with the girl child’s upbringing. Is she brought up as a confident person, as an individual who doesn’t need constant reassurance about her abilities, strengths and power? Or is she seen as a burden that needs to be married off because she isn’t good enough to earn and feel accomplished?
So why and when do women part ways with their careers?
First, the number of women in schools and institutes of higher education keeps diminishing as one goes up the stream and consequently the number of women entering the formal work force is greatly diminished. Even after completing their education, women are not exactly encouraged to work outside their homes as that is meant only for men. It is also not considered safe for women to step out and work. Parents feel they have done their duty by educating their daughters and what is left is marrying them off. Women are seen as, and accept the role of, ‘primary care givers’ for their families.
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi summarised this beautifully when she said in an interview that a woman’s career clock and biological clock are in total conflict. If you somehow managed to get back to work post maternity, that innate gut-wrenching guilt of not being a good enough mother will ensure you give up your career for your child. In progressive societies there is very little family support and more so today given the increasing instances of nuclear families. Hence the dependence on outside help to take care of their little ones is more stressful for new mothers. This is further complicated when the spouse is not supportive.
The availability of reliable domestic help or good quality day care facilities continue to impact the careers of working women in a big way. The absence of good quality and reasonably priced day-care facilities is a major career disruptor. Let’s face it, in most households the man’s career holds centre-stage and women often compromise on their own careers to accommodate their spouses. This is one of the major challenges for working women — to adapt their own careers to suit the ebbs and flows of their spouses’ careers.
In most workplaces, managers still baulk at the idea of flexible working hours, though this would greatly help retain women in the workforce. This is changing slowly and organisations are more open to women working from home. But such flexibility often comes at the cost of career progression. On the other hand, increased responsibilities at the workplace come with its own price tag of less time with the family. Women climbing the corporate ladder often face this dilemma and there are no easy solutions.
Finally, safety and security issues continue to hamper the progress of women and prevent them from pursuing certain types of jobs, especially ones involving travel. On a positive note, we do see that in the service industry like banking, financial services, technology, and consulting, amongst others, organisations are adopting gender diversity initiatives such as generous maternity breaks that can be extended if required, work-from-home options, flexible working hours, in-house state-of-the-art childcare facilities, lactation rooms, programmes that support women during pregnancy, maternity leave and post-maternity phase, mentoring programmes for middle-management women, etc.
According to company annual reports, the diversity percentage in some large organisations in the industrial and manufacturing sectors is less than four per cent and some of them are even below one per cent. It will be interesting to see companies in this sector take initiatives to encourage and coach girls to take up engineering courses that will in turn feed into a gender diverse work-force going forward. The National Sample Survey data for India shows that the labour force participation rates of women aged 25-54 (including primary and subsidiary status) have stagnated at about 26-28 per cent in urban areas, and fallen substantially from 57 per cent to 44 per cent in rural areas, between 1987 and 2011.
Different surveys essentially tell the same story. In rural areas, organisations across industry sectors, through the CSR (corporate social responsibility) route are aiming to make women self-reliant by creating self-help groups, implementing skill development, education, health and sanitation and various income generation activities. The micro finance industry has also played an instrumental role in women’s empowerment in villages and small-towns. At the end of the day, the solution lies in focusing on key initiatives like educating and empowering the girl child to create confident women for the future and that is our collective responsibility.
(The author is a Working Mother and Partner & Diversity Practice Leader with EMA Partners, a Global Executive Search Firm)