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Expecting people to work 70 hours a week as an industry leader said recently doesn't equal 'commitment', and is especially problematic for women.
Anjali joined an investment bank after completing her MBA. She was living in a shared flat with two other women. They all worked hard and partied harder. This was the life she had dreamt of since her parents enrolled her in the IIT coaching classes, and she loved it. Two years later, she married her batchmate. They moved into their own 2 BHK, but nothing else changed for them. They had a housekeeper who would come in during the day and a cook who took care of dinner. Saturdays were reserved for grocery shopping and other odd jobs, and they had Sundays to themselves. Anjali never understood why some women complained about work-life balance. As far as she was concerned, women could have it all. Wasn’t she proof of it?
Once she turned 30, Anjali, who till them had ignored all the aunties who kept asking her when she was going to give “good news” became acutely conscious of the ticking of the bio clock. She worked through the first two trimesters of her pregnancy, and kept working almost till her due date. Once the baby came, she engaged a full-time nanny and focussed on training her so she could get back to work at the end of her maternity leave.
Things went well for during the first week. She gradually eased back into her role. Since she was still breast feeding, she used a breast pump to express milk twice during the work day. She left on time, and managed to beat the traffic and return home in time for the late evening feed.
But the good times didn’t last.
Soon Anjali started hearing comments like “so you are leaving early today, are you?” and “have you taken a half day today?” when she was logging off after completing all her pending jobs. She held back from reminding them that unlike them, she hadn’t taken multiple coffee breaks- she had just worked more productively than they had, and finished on time.
“Anjali, there is a team meeting scheduled for 7 pm. You will have to stay back for it”, her line manager informed her when she was getting ready to leave. The meeting could have been easily scheduled during working hours, but she couldn’t say much since she was the only one who was affected. Gradually, she saw that the plum assignments were going to other people. Though productivity had never been an issue, the organization had decided that she was less “committed” after she became a mother.
She also realised that in the few months that she had been on maternity leave, the dynamics with her husband had changed. She had taken on more domestic responsibilities since she “was at home”, and he stopped doing some of his jobs because there was “full-time help” at home. Her husband doted on their child, but she was clearly “primary parent”, and that she would be the one who would be expected to prioritise the child over all else. Anjali loved her job and didn’t want to drop out, but she recognised that things were no longer what they were before. Without her intending it to be that way, she would forever be thrown into situations where she would be forced to choose between home and work. Women could not have it all!
If Anjali’s story sounds familiar, it is because each of us know several Anjalis. It is extremely hard for employees to find a work-life balance in organizations which place a disproportionate emphasis on “commitment” defined in terms of the number of hours spent at the workplace. This affects all employees, but takes a greater toll on women since society expects women to bear the primary responsibility for housekeeping, childrearing and caregiving.
In general, when men return home after a 12 or 14 hour workday (including commuting time), they can expect to have a warm dinner waiting for them; women would have to cook/ heat the dinner, feed the kids, supervise homework and plan for the next day before eating. Is it any wonder that women consciously or unconsciously slow down their careers because they cannot do it all?
A few years back, I had analysed the gender data for my team. We had nearly 50% representation of women at the entry level, but the percentage dropped to 33% at the next level, and it kept dropping till we had only one woman at the managerial level. This is the case across industries. Though the percentage of women at entry level may be high, the number keeps dropping, and there are barely any women in the corner offices.
This is certainly not because women are less competent than men- they aren’t. But one of the determining reasons is that women are not able to balance the insane time demands of the workplace with the personal responsibilities placed on them (there are many other systemic reasons for women dropping out, but this is certainly one of them).
It is in light of this that statements like the one made by Narayana Murthy about ‘youngsters having to work 70 hours a week’ are so problematic. Male or female, expecting people to work 70 hours a week is moronic. Assuming 2 hours per day to commute to work, and 6 hours of sleep every day, you are left with 6 hours a day for everything else. Eating, attending to personal hygiene, dressing, paying bills, everything in just 6 hours a day. Even assuming you have a full-time housekeeper cum cook who takes care of all your requirements, you are left with virtually no time for exercise, friends, hobbies or even watching and discussing cricket. Yes, Narayana Murthy specified that this is only in the initial years while a person is establishing their career, but is such a lifestyle sustainable, much less desirable?
Women face so many barriers while seeking a professional education and a career- will that not become worse if parents know that their daughters are expected to work 70 hours a week? Men have the privilege to focus on their career, because even if they get married, nothing will change for them. However, women will be subject to intense parental pressure to quit their jobs because a 70 hour work week would make them undesirable in the marriage market. Even if women fend off the pressure and work those 70 hour work weeks, will they be able to enjoy the benefit of that investment after they get married and have children?
There are people who say that women can choose to focus on the careers by not getting married/ having babies. While this is certainly possible, is it fair that only women are confronted with this choice? Even men who are fully focussed on their career get married and have children- neither of those life events disrupts their career progression. Why then should only women be expected to choose one or the other?
What is needed to redress the gender balance is a two pronged strategy- companies realising that long hours do not necessarily imply greater productivity, and societal acceptance that caregiving, housekeeping and childrearing are gender agnostic.
Countries like the Netherlands and other Scandinavian and West European countries have shown that the introduction of flexible work hours has not resulted in a dip in productivity. Instead, if the focus remains on the output rather than the hours spent at work, productivity has gone up because there is an incentive to complete the job in the least possible time. These are also the countries where both partners share housekeeping, caregiving and childrearing in a more equitable manner, leaving both men and women with more time for leisure.
Countries like India where “hard work” is prioritised and where young people are brought up on the mantra of “work hard now so you reap rewards later”, are also countries which have low labour force participation by women and are extremely low on the happiness index. If we want the nation to progress, instead of glorifying 70 hour work weeks, we should be seeking greater productivity in white collar industries.
[Disclaimer: these are “first world” problems, and are largely restricted to the urban professional worker in corporate and in service industries. However many of these issues would similarly translate into other settings.]
Image source: screenshot from Bombay Begums
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...
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