Vasundhara Pande analyses the factors that explain the persisting and complex problem of declining female labour force participation in India.
Indian women are often bestowed (read burdened) with a multitude of roles as that of a daughter, sister, wife, mother; the list goes on. Only in recent decades, women have started to occupy the category of “working woman”. But who is a working woman? Aren’t all women working- be it at homes or offices or sometimes both.
According to the current work culture in India, what separates a working woman from a non-working woman is the money she brings to the table. In other words, only women engaged in salaried professions are labelled working. Recent data suggest that women constitute only 19.9% of the 60% workforce. However, these numbers are misleading because a significant proportion of rural women continue to be engaged in non-salaried work such as agriculture, animal husbandry, collection, and processing of forest material. They receive almost zero recognition – both on the ground as well as in the numbers – even though a considerable percentage of effort and production on a farm is delivered by women. In cities, unskilled women workers such as those working on construction sites, women involved in handicraft or garment industry, etc are denied their due credit of a “working woman”. The data almost dismisses the efforts of women running small businesses at the local level and those constantly being engaged in taking care of children and the elderly at home.
In an advertisement by “Meesho”- a growing online shopping application, an attempt was made to attract the female audience by offering them a chance “to be both a housewife and working women”. This statement in itself breeds controversy and yet again convinces women to give into demarcated “gender roles”. An extended version of gender roles is observed when employed women are expected to engage in what is known by Sociologist Arlie Hochschild as the “second shift”. This shift is characterized by long hours of housework often done by the woman in the house with little or no help from other family members, even when she comes from her workplace -all dreaded and drained.
Given women are employed, their job is considered as a “hobby” and income generated is used as savings. On the other hand, many employed women are forced to leave their workplace due to immigration caused by marriage, pregnancy, or other social factors. This gives many companies, from IT to multinationals an excuse to prefer a male over a female with the same qualifications during hiring or promotion. Having mentioned that, even though the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, mandates a creche-facility and increases the duration of paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, fewer women report being at the receiving end of these facilities. Of what hinders women from being employed permanently, safety while traveling and at the workplace and the gender wage gap are legitimate issues that often remain under-discussed and unaddressed by recruiters. Although women working during night shifts are provided with the facility of cabs, many continue to report feeling unsafe. Instances of sexual harassment at the workplace create an unsafe environment for women and often discourage them from continuing to work further. An angry man at the workplace is perceived as an employee with “leadership” qualities while an angry woman at the workplace is either labeled neurotic or disliked. That is where double standards induced from obnoxious gender norms come into play at the workplace. Such often ignored social factors contribute to discouraging women from joining the workforce.
Citing history, women’s work has always been considered secondary to a man- who is burdened with the pressure to be the sole bread-earner of the family. During World War II, men employed in factories went to war, so women were pushed into factories to compensate for the absence of men. This showed the world that women are capable beyond housework and child-rearing. A new study based on the “Social Attitudes Research India Survey” covering Delhi, Mumbai, UP, and Rajasthan in 2016 revealed that a significant share of men and women feel that married women whose husbands earn a good living should not work outside the home. Women in India are more often than not, not presented with the privilege to prioritize their financial independence by involving themselves in the employment sector, eventually making them dependent on the male members of their families.
Although many women receive a formal education, only a few are securing employment. Despite rapidly increasing educational attainment for girls and declining fertility, the International Labour Organization in 2013 ranked India 11th from the bottom in the world in female labour-force participation. In the last two decades campaigns like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” have gained wider popularity, emphasizing the need to educate the girl child. However, these campaigns fail to recognize the importance of empowering the girl child enough to make her financially independent. The lack of consideration of this has resulted in 53% of women passing as undergraduates but only 20% of them being employed. The Indian urge to marry the girl once she completes her education can be blamed for the disturbing statistics. While many women are seen marrying right after their education, some often marry before appearing for their final examinations. A significant out of these married women are either pushed into childbirth and childrearing right after marriage or remain pressurized under “family pride and honor” which mandates for women of the house not being employed into salaried professions.
Drawing a comparative analysis of the status of urban and rural areas, the rural woman, if uneducated is pushed into working in the fields while urban women, even if they receive education are burdened by what Uma Chakravarti, a historian, calls the “stridharma”- characterized by selflessness and sacrifice, which comes at the cost of their financial independence. Women are conditioned to believe that eventually, they would have to sacrifice their freedom for the family. However, women who chose to break the glass ceiling for not wanting to leave their profession for marriage or childbirth/rearing are labelled selfish and constantly looked down upon.
It is implied that many women are often not provided with a conscious and informed choice of choosing not to work, which makes it difficult to conclude whether Indian women choose not to work. However, grassroots level changes can ensure that women are given their due autonomy. Recruiters can make landmarking decisions by making workplaces women-friendly through ensuring implementation of strict actions against sexual harassment, enforcement of maternity acts, and adopting an unbiased approach while recruiting. Students in educational institutions should be educated about feminism and women empowerment with special emphasis on deconstructing maladaptive and antiquated gender roles. Women must be socialized into believing that their profession is more than a hobby while men shouldn’t be forced to be the sole breadwinners of the family.