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The ordeal of working mothers during summer break in India needs to act as a wake-up call for employers; is ‘gender friendly’ just a popular word, or do orgs really walk the talk?
Summer break in India began in the month of May, and some mothers, along with their children, have gone on elaborate holiday breaks a month long – visiting grannies without nannies, trekking the hills to calm distressed minds, clicking away the pine and oak in valleys and skiing across glacial belts. The holiday amusement usually spans the timeline of a month or a little more, often spent at a place away from one’s home.
Mothers who are not employed outside the home, usually wait for the summer holidays to revive their lost energies, relax and rejuvenate in known/unknown locations and move on from the madness of everyday chores, while most men, after a week or ten days, are back to business!
Single working women too (not too many of them) spend some time away during the summer break at their native place or at camping, beach hopping, trekking and other such fun activities. But there are very few privileged working mothers who take pleasure in the summer break and can rejoice in merrymaking during holiday breaks. For most employed Indian women who are also mothers, this is a time for additional responsibilities, with madness and pressure that leads to breakdown, chaos, panic and an oblivious state of affairs.
In India, the nature of women’s work has always been a critical matter, for a lot of women’s work remains unrecognised, unpaid and underpaid. Working Mothers’ (WM’s) condition remains drab throughout the year since the level of micro management at home has always been undervalued, and on a daily basis, her duty hours begin even before the sun rises and end after midnight. In the working months/days/hours, other than work deadlines, the WM remains constantly on her toes managing family needs, nagging the maid/crèche on child arrival-departure to & from school, or on security matters at home.
Holidays, while fun and less burdensome for many, make the WM anticipate another crisis. With whom can she leave her child during the holiday season as it breaks at school, but not for offices? Finally, a plot is hitched to bring along children under the age of twelve to office.
Surveys have cited that Indian women mostly leave their jobs for the growth and nurturing of kids. In the age group of 20-35 the married woman not only has to plan for children, and take care of her ward but also simultaneously work on a career, on being part of the economic world she always dreamt of. Being part of a professional world remains a vision for many women. Marginally, a few women manage to be part of the economic world, where they can contribute to the country’s growth and welfare, simultaneously giving wings to their dreams.
Indian society has covertly undertaken many pressure building exercises to compel women to leave the economic sphere through emotional tactics, family or community reputation, lesser opportunities, unsafe working environment, trolling and sexual abuses, all simultaneously halting the mission of women empowerment. Though it is quite visible everywhere, yet little brainstorming has been done on how to encourage women to manage work and children through benefits, institutionalised processes, or government schemes (for urban women). Any discussion on the same commonly takes place among friends and not at a greater management or policy levels. That working mothers have to manage children and work at the same time is one of the reasons why many women leave jobs. A sense of guilt, stress, and camouflaged roles tend to act as deterring factors.
A gender friendly working environment is much talked about, but what is not being done is how to make the work space in post-pregnancy cases a comforting and confident space. The functional space for women is a lot less embracing and reassuring. Though formally, the institution of maternity benefits and Sexual Harassment related Internals Complaint Committee is done, the empowerment of working mothers has been through informal rather than institutional mechanisms. These informal supports through cooperative colleagues, rescue missions and adaptive offerings have come to offer much help.
The maternity benefits of 6 months or up to 2 years are only available largely at public bodies and organizations, and some MNCs that seek to maintain a gender friendly reputation. Most private organisations are yet to provide maternity benefits fully to their women employees, and also systematically make attempts to rob the pregnant woman of her six month maternity benefit or convert some amount of entitled paid maternity into unpaid leave. It is a tragedy that a country that plans to be a superpower and achieve a growth rate of 7-8% has kept most of its women at home running business models on self-financing formula, half of which fail and end even before maturity.
For those few who have progressively moved ahead fighting the odds to be in the public space, the administrative structures have never been much accommodative and encouraging. For example when a woman joins an organisation, very few organizations conduct an orientation on the work space, culture and environment. Most places of work in India are gender unequal. The women are asked to share cabins while the patriarchal work environment allots men (in most cases men only reach the top ranks in hierarchy) private cabins/ cubicles.
More ironical in India, almost all private universities/ institutions/ organizations offer women a lesser pay scale or designate them on a lower salary slab. The justifications are many, including crazy ones like women are not the first earning member or head of the family, so why do they need a higher pay. Also, a maternity break for women is advantageous for organisations to escape paying women the deserving salary, and it has never been an equal pay in the private/informal sector. Women always have been under-designated, underpaid and only occasionally been considered for promotion/growth.
Most research reveals that women either fill the junior or mid level posts in offices, and they get salaries much lesser than men; also in terms of work spaces they are made to adjust in smaller spaces or sharing legroom. Not many women speak of these ordeals publicly, since being able to work is also a privilege, as only some families allow their women to work. In sum, the work culture in our country is hardly accommodative to the roles of multi-tasking women, who also have ubiquitous roles to play for family members and children’s needs.
During a child’s infant to teenage years, the condition and continuation of work for many working mothers is at the mercy of the supporting family (if only) and supporting staff (if friendly and sensitive). In the case of nuclear families the going gets tougher, compelling women to choose to leave the job than continue with the double ordeal. Long working hours, long and distant travel, uncomfortable working conditions, strained work environment – all of these make work uncomfortable for women.
Though crèche facility is instituted at some workplaces, most of them are short of available seats, with unhygienic and careless staff support. Theoretically, large Indian families with 5-6 members, including elderly people are regarded as loving and caring. In practice, a lot of working women in these joint-family systems face daily challenges of lack of sensitivity and adjustment as they complain of receiving step-daughterly treatment. When it comes to baby-care, most of the time even in a joint family system the working mothers are left alone or on their own, when they desperately seek help. For example, if she anticipates a meeting or busy day at work, surprisingly the working mother is left to juggle and explore options for support. Day cares and crèche though available, if not located in the neighbourhood of approximately 5 kms are more traumatic then calming. Holidays break into a sort of madness and make the working mother anxious and hysterical.
WMs who bring their children to the work space in holiday season, are welcomed by some but it doesn’t float the boat for many. Friends and sensitive co-workers who are also parents are the ones who come forward to offer timely and hourly help. But does this make the working mother’s condition confident and comfortable? From my own experience and shared stories, it has been understood that while our men stay more relaxed at work, focusing on the single goal of work life performance during office hours, a women while on job is torn between monitoring, caretaking, panicking and meeting the needs both of child and office in the holiday break.
Till date, hardly any organisation has considered making the work space for working mothers more expansive and accommodative. If a woman happens to leave office right on time, many men and sleaze-mongers would take it upon themselves to bad-mouth her to the extent of raising doubts about her abilities. None would understand that while men enjoy the privilege of transferring the responsibilities of home and child to their spouse, women are never freed naturally and socially from constant parenting and caretaking responsibilities whether in office or after office hours. WMs rush back home only to begin the other set of the day’s labour, a job unpaid and unappreciated. The only glory for her is the happiness and security she can provide through her nurturing to her children and dear ones.
In many offices the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to work on Sexual Harassment is also dysfunctional and exists only on paper. When an organization prevents women from filing complaints through various pressure tactics, how will a complaint cell be able to address real concerns? A woman who has struggled to get a job, or to rise up the ladder in a men’s world on more occasions than one is unable to muster the courage to expose a system singlehandedly while forces opposing her are in alliance.
Many unexpected cases of leaving jobs or shifting industries are heard in the case of women workers, where women cite work space incapacities to integrate their needs. Job loss or humiliation is just the immediate consequences if a woman has to take the system at task for depriving her of her rights and dignity. Organizations may flaunt the maternity benefits provided, but many only express the willingness in providing the same, since investing in equipping one’s office space to integrate working mothers would be more expensive.
Many seek to employ men in higher positions to work late hours, and keep women at middle or low management levels. But in a conscious and challenging time, where women are outperforming men and aware of their rights, how much can the system get going with silencing and ignoring the needs, aspirations for a proper and adequate work space for women?
The first thing missing in the country is an ‘effective working hours’ policy. While there is a fixed time to reach office there is no commonly particular time followed in leaving office. The extra hours at work may be significant on some days, but mostly, people spend time ineffectively in office after work timings without any productive contribution to the organisation. This systemic condition and habitual practice of staying late in office, becomes a way to judge and nudge working mothers. For leaving office on time, women face an embarrassment of sorts on a regular basis, which significantly impacts on their growth and appraisals. “If she cannot stay late in office, she cannot be fit to head”, is the perception held.
The second problem is the absence in institutionalizing the work space for working mothers during holiday breaks and other months for her to worry less for children. If a mother without any other option has to bring her children to office, then every company needs to be sympathetic and arrange a room for children to be housed with a caretaker. Many multinational companies follow the same with effective resources and management; however in private educational institutions, institutes and organizations, and also a few govt. setups, such infrastructural support is hardly common.
A question could be raised as to why should work spaces make arrangements for employees’ children? The answer lies in a simple understanding that a nation can only grow economically when more women work and offer quality service to organizations. In terms of the numbers of women filling public spaces, the figures are abysmally low. India is ranked 121st out of 131 countries in Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) by a World Bank Report, Policy Report 2017 (PDF).
The low participation of women in the workforce and slower rise of women to higher ranks is due to the lack of support from government and companies in terms of integrative policies and their unwillingness to pioneer work opportunities. While schemes have been designed for rural women to join the labour force through MNREGA and others, few schemes exist as a catalyst for urban women to keep working and growing in the existing professional space.
Most of all, work spaces need arrangements, mechanisms and measures to help working mothers keep working. Equal pay for equal work, effective work time without stealing moments for family attention, office transport for easy and secure movement, representation, inclusive participation, reassurance rather than removal, timely and warranted growth, and constructive opportunities could largely encourage working mothers. Indian companies, institutes, universities are way behind in creating a gender friendly and neutral space, and holiday breaks are an ideal time to listen and observe working mothers’ ordeal of managing work and child during work hours, and the fault that continue in our working clusters.
Image via Pixabay
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Anna is a full time Professor teaching Politics, but she loves to write on subjects
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