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At Entry Level, 1/3rd Of The Staff Were Women, Then Why Weren’t We More At The Managerial Level?

In India, unpaid labour like housework, child care and elderly care is seen as the sole responsibility of the women, after which they have no time or energy to engage in paid work.

A couple of years back, when I reached office after attending an International Women’s Day event, my team surprised me with a huge bouquet of baby pink roses and a beautiful handmade card inscribed with thoughtful messages. I was thrilled- who wouldn’t be to receive such a token of affection from their team.

But after the mandatory photographs were taken, and I sat back with my coffee, the subtle scent of the roses almost seemed to mock me.

Yes, I was leading an entire region. But was the fact that I was the only woman in the regional office really a matter of pride? At the entry level, nearly a third of the staff was female; why then were we so poorly represented at the managerial level?

For every woman who reached high up, there were many who couldn’t

I thought of the lady who had put in her papers two weeks earlier when her mother fell ill. Her brother couldn’t look after her, so she had to take a break to be a full time caregiver. Neither she nor I knew when she would be back in the formal workforce, and how long she would remain there before another family emergency demanded a sacrifice.

I though of the young lady who had dazzled me during the interview process. I really wanted to recruit her, but she had backed out when informed that she would need to travel for a week at a time once every quarter; she had young children and while she was willing to work long hours and on weekends, she couldn’t travel for more than a day or two at a time.

I thought of the young lady who would hop onto her two-wheeler and zip down district highways to monitor the rural programmes. Her parents worried about her safety, and forced her to leave the job she loved and take up one in retail marketing instead.

I had tried really hard to bring more women into the management team, and the sweet smell of roses constantly reminded me of my failure.

Why was this happening?

But was the lack of gender diversity at my office my failing, or was it symptomatic of a larger problem? The latter, according to all the studies on employment in India. According to the NSS (National Sample Survey), for instance, as of January 2018, 77% of the Indian workforce is male. This figure includes not just formal and full-time employment, but also casual labourers, part time workers, self employed and even those helping in family enterprises with or without a formal contract.

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The reason for this gap is simple. In India, housework, child care and elderly care is seen as the sole responsibility of the women, and Indian women put in as much as 3.29 billion hours of unpaid labour everyday. These activities are both unpaid and unrecognised, and after discharging these responsibilities, women simply do not have the time to seek paid employment elsewhere.

According to reports, regardless of their professional qualifications and/ or experience, seven out of ten women in India aged between 25 to 35 are engaged solely in full-time unpaid housework, and 66% of an Indian woman’s labour is unpaid.

Marriage, elder care, child care, domestic duties… the list is endless

While young women certainly have aspirations of working and being financially independent, most women drop out of the formal workforce after they get married either because of societal expectations or because they are just not able to manage to balance full time work with housework and caregiving.

As in the case of my former colleague, elder care is automatically assumed to be the responsibility of the women, and women are forced to sacrifice their careers if either a parent or a parent-in-law falls ill.

Parenthood is the next barrier that working women have to cross. While many women continue to work well into the third trimester of the first pregnancy, in the absence of adequate childcare felicities at the workplace, and given the fact that child-rearing is still considered the prime responsibility of the mother, very few are able to get back to full-time paid employment. Since few workplaces allow flexible working hours, work from home options or part time employment, most women end up taking a career break after they give birth, and this break often ends up being a permanent one.

Women who do re-enter the workplace after childbirth are often forced to compromise on their career progression since they are unable to work long hours and travel extensively. The additional responsibility of child rearing also limits the choices available to women, particularly mothers of younger children.

Workplace safety is another factor that affects women’s participation in the workplace. Women are discouraged from entering many fields, or taking up certain roles that are deemed unsuitable for them. Engineering is one such field. Though almost a third of engineering graduates in India are women, very few take up engineering jobs and many of them drop out because working conditions are not conducive to women. Women are also discouraged from taking up jobs that involve travel, and this pushback comes both from their families and from prospective employers.

Are there any solutions?

Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) is a measure of the number of people who are employed and actively seeking employment. In 2018-19, in urban India, LFPR for men was 73.8%, and for women 21.1%. This implies that four out of every five women are not only not engaged in paid employment, they are not even actively seeking employment.

The situation in my office was not an aberration; it was clearly a reflection of prevailing norms. It is a very small percentage of women who join the formal workplace, and a smaller percentage who continue in the workplace.

One way to increase the gender diversity is for organizations to adopt policies that encourage women to remain in the workplace. This involves setting up childcare facilities in the office premises, offering flexitime, part time and work from home opportunities, and encouraging all employees (not just the women) to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Other measures like period leave, sick leave for illnesses of children will also make it easier to retain women in the workplace.

However, ultimately, it is societal expectations that need to change. Families need to realise that housework, caregiving and childrearing are not gendered roles, and that both partners should participate equally in both. It is only when men start taking on greater responsibility at home that the workforce participation of women will increase and they will be able to achieve their full potential.

In an ideal world, the roses I received on International Women’s Day should be distributed between all the employees, male and female, to celebrate a gender just workplace.

Image source: a still from Marathi series Aani Kay Hawa


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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

82 Posts | 88,238 Views

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