The Dismal State Of Women’s Employment In India

Where are the women in India’s workforce? At home saving kids and husbands? Wear your own oxygen mask first!

ByTara Krishnaswamy
The Dismal State Of Women’s Employment In India
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In 1886, when Anandi Joshee was 20, she graduated as a medical doctor from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. The first Indian female with that distinction. She was routinely pursued, before, during and after her studies, with questions as to why a woman would possibly want to be a doctor. She simply explained that numerous women in need of medical attention would rather die than expose themselves to a male doctor.

In economic parlance, this reason is simply “demand.” It would serve us well to internalise her response. She had answered it then for generations of us to come.

While this sort of challenge to women’s educational aspirations is not too far-fetched even today in rural settings, by and large, in urban India, we have made our peace with it. Our grandmothers made it to 8th or 10th grade and our mothers went to college. They fought the fights that paved and eased the way for women’s higher education. We now take that for granted in urban India. Sure, there is latent angst about hostels, specific discipline of study and so forth but we would be amiss to not recognize the valuable progress that has been made in this domain.

And the statistics bear it out. Female enrolment in colleges leapt from 10 per cent of total admissions at the time of independence to 41 per cent in 2010.

However, this has not translated to equivalent gains in women’s employment. Indeed, in the past few decades, the percentage of urban and educated working women has been stagnant or even fallen. Overall, only 20 per cent of urban educated working-age women actually work. Further, nearly half of those drop out mid-career.

Simply put, 40 of every 100 college goers are female, but the advanced education they receive is used in a job only by 8 of the 40. About 3 years later, 4 of those 8 drop out. Urban, middle class, educated females, the prime benefactors of the women’s higher education revolution of the past generation, seem to barely aspire to a career, bid adieu in the first few years and never look back.

If we view this problem through the prism of human behaviour, numerous scientific studies of genetic traits emphatically establish that both genders are intrinsically acquisitive. We have greed, ambition, industry, a fierce competitive spirit, an intrinsic need to socialise with like-minded individuals and pride in achievement. Ergo, we are human.

So what prompts urban, middle class and educated women to log out of formal employment or not even knock on its doors?  What happens to their innate human tendency to excel, succeed, compete, acquire wealth, rank and position? What happens indeed to that irrepressible urge to have meaningful, insightful and thought-provoking discussions with individuals pursuing common goals beyond the mundane?

In simple terms, when basic human needs are fulfilled, imagination and aspiration are supposed to take over.  While women have the choice, rightfully, to prioritise raising their children, here’s a dose of the uncomfortable truth. Human babies stop needing full time attention once they hit school at the age of four. Cooking, cleaning and care giving are necessary and important, but not full time activities. There is simply no excuse for staying home during school hours.

What is more, there is a reason women have brains in addition to their uterus. Women are, first of all, people. Not mothers or daughters or wives.  Accordingly, women must unfetter themselves from social conditioning and patriarchal notions of domesticity and internalise the notion that they are human first. They owe a life to themselves.

Women must put on their own oxygen mask, before assisting their families. Wake up, sisters! Martyrs are not glorious. They are dead.

And that brings us to a sociological view on the matter.

There is no denying that India scrapes the very bottom of the barrel in offering an organised, reliable support system and social impetus for working women. It lacks safe roads, transport, bathroom facilities and child care, unbiased social attitudes, workplace policies and sensitivities.

Even beyond that, the most obvious and primitive social barriers still prevail: “the gap between what she can and what she’s allowed to do”, and “equal pay for equal work”. We must acknowledge these woeful inadequacies in including women in the public sphere.

However, there is no history of change being wrought without the demand for it. Even in a land as ours where we wait patiently for messiahs. Women must therefore fight to work. We must cease to pretend that workforce participation is a choice. First pull ourselves out of the mire of social and domestic conditioning and then drag the men and families along. This exerts pressure on the existing system.

The progress thus far is thanks to the previous generation of women who, like noble warriors, did their bit to advance the cause of education for women. We are now at the head of that line. It is now our turn to forge a path for the women of tomorrow.  We need to impatiently seek out employment the way the last generation sought out education. We need to breach social barriers and biases, be it at home from parents and husbands or at the workplace.

Yet again, take a leaf out of Anandi Joshee’s book.

Women need to work as architects because they are expert users of homes and kitchens. They need to become urban planners, since they are subjected everyday and first hand to today’s hostile public spaces, bereft of toilets and safe harbours. We need to create advertisements that don’t denigrate our gender, direct movies that capture us as people and not as permanent sexual fixtures, control businesses and change the ratio of gender in the workplace, invest other people’s wealth and hence build our own. We must hasten to build ships, launch missiles and run the country. In fair measure.

Employment is a serious instrument of societal change. Studies in developed nations world over show that a much greater degree of gender equity across the social spectrum is due to women’s participation in the workforce. In fact, workforce participation is causative for declining discrimination and increasing empowerment of women. Not vice versa.

In a democracy, lone voices are drowned. The only way to achieve public inclusion, social acceptability and combat stigma in a modern society is to invade the workplace in a majority. The onus for spearheading this squarely lies on urban, educated and middle class females. The poor have neither the skills nor time in their oppressive daily routine and the rich have no incentive to drive change.

The world of marketing would call this “demand generation.

Furthermore, it is overdue thanksgiving to our female predecessors and the best gift to the girls of tomorrow. And this is the gift that keeps on giving. Individual self esteem, social progress and of course, undeniable economic benefits.

And so, finally, we arrive at the mother of all reasons for educated women to work.  Money.

Money is the irrefutable fountainhead of power. When women abdicate their desire for a fair share of power, in the broadest sense of the word, it results in a skewed and impotent society. A world where half its population doesn’t have or pursue means of individual economic sustenance is strange at best.

Formal employment puts money in women’s hands, improves skills, empowers and emboldens, organises and aggregates them. In addition to a sense of self worth and enabling a much louder social discourse on gender, it allows them choice.

An unfortunate trend in the past decades is that droves of women are joining the unorganised sector in urban India either at the low end as house maids, janitors, cooks and nannies or at the higher end as tuition teachers, art teachers, online content creators, part-time workers at NGOs, contract and freelance labour and the like. For the most part, these jobs provide no reliable and sustainable economic benefit.

Perhaps by leaping from agriculture to services and skipping that manufacturing curve of jobs generation almost entirely, India has inadvertently missed an opportunity to take its women along to work. And, conversely, urban and educated middle class women are now caught napping at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.

Temporary and freelance pursuits may engage women intellectually and emotionally, on and off offering limited, if any, career-building opportunities. Career-building is the cornerstone of self reliance. It implies sustained development and acquisition of new skills, reliable income upon which financial plans and contingency measures can be built, ability to acquire property, accumulate wealth and retire with pension-generating investments.

To that end,  women must not only participate in the labour force, but also hold jobs in the organised sector, receive a monthly pay cheque and become tax payers in their own individual right.  Women must accumulate wealth, make investments and also charitable contributions.

Beyond the intellectual, social and personal economic level though, a developing nation can ill afford such a hit on economic growth, output and GDP.  The much-vaunted demographic divide is fractured as even educated women barely aspire to careers, growth, economic independence and sustenance.  There is no fuzziness to this. Both a UN and a Booz Allen study in 2012 peg that India’s GDP would soar by 27 per cent if female workforce participation matched male levels.

As a collective, we must take cognisance of this national burden and morph towards a society where both men and women are engaged in productive economic enterprise. That is essential in order to present a better India to our next generations.

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