Following is a transcribed passage from an interview I conducted (for my dissertation) to examine the role of gender in employment: “So I think this was long back, and I went to, I think… a small conference event. There I just sat in one of the seats because I was diffident. I didn’t know what my contribution would be… and the lady who was anchoring the conference walked up to me and said, ‘This is what we women end up doing. Please move to the centre of the table’, and there was a table surrounded by chairs.
So she asked me to move to the table. I assumed that all the men, mostly men, who were sitting there were all presenting something. She said no, she said, ‘See, that’s the difference, the difference in how they’re just sitting there just as a way of asserting oneself.’ Since then, I have been very conscious.”
Shahira (name changed), is a fairly accomplished woman in her late 30s—a mother of one child, a working professional for over 17 years, and is currently employed in a middle-senior level management position.
Raima (name changed), five and half months into her pregnancy, expresses her omnipresent anxiety with regard to womanhood and empowerment: “So the anxiety has always been like a double-edged sword for me, one edge constantly scaring me that my ambition would refrain me from having families like other women and the other edge being that my need to have a family would make less and less ambitious about my career. Yeah, I think that anxiety always has sort of driven my choices, professionally and personally. I would have liked to experience a life where I did not need to choose between the both, like how my brother never had to think twice before being fiercely ambitious about his career, expectations of marriage were much reduced in his case.”
Diffidence. Anxiety. Unsure. Expectations. Motherhood. Pregnancy. Responsibilities. Overwhelming. Marriage. Cooking. Travel limitations. These were some of the conspicuously prominent terms used by the interviewees repetitively throughout the length of their respective interviews. The sample chosen for the study consisted of second-generation working women with “supportive” husbands, good grade education, and a socio-economic privilege shared by only a minuscule proportion of women in India.
However, even with the privilege, their lived experience did not evade the inequality rooted in their gender and the socialised norms around it.
In 2020, India slipped by several ranks to No. 140 out of 156 nations in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index.
Further, in terms of employment, India has also witnessed an abysmally low Female Labour Participation Rate (FLPR), accounting for only 19.6% of Indian women employed formally, as per data by ILO in 2021 (World Bank data in 1990 accounted for 30.26% of employed women). There were hints that the decrease in FLPR could be rationalised by the increase in enrollment of women in higher education. However, the decline in employment far outweighed the increase in enrolment for higher education (Female Gross Enrollment Rate stands at 49% in 2018 as against 42% in 2011).
It is within this context that it becomes crucial for researchers, policymakers to divert the public and discursive attention from makeshift interventions to the structural aspects of the labour force. Structural aspects can include identifying the gaps in how women are enabled with skill training, capacity building before they enter the workforce, how industries are forbearing to their biological differences, the socialisation and delegation of caregiving responsibilities, etcetera.
It is these structural changes in employment that ultimately translate to equity in female representation and participation in the labour force.
Deeply entrenched norms about women’s roles in society, particularly their roles as caregivers within homebound premises, continue to impair their development at several levels. Their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters are traditionally given precedence over their self-accomplishing needs.
The norms of women being caregivers are so deeply entrenched that it goes beyond being simply external social feedback. Women themselves internalise their identity to be essentially entwined with back-breaking, time-consuming, unpaid care responsibilities. The Oxfam Inequality report identified a high degree of hesitancy among elderly Dalit women when they were asked about their homebound responsibilities; they “were expressly uncomfortable to talk about women’s unpaid care work as they thought it was natural, compulsory work and not worth wasting time discussing in a gathering.”
In 2018, ILO reported women in urban areas spent 312 minutes/day on unpaid care work and women in rural areas spent 291 minutes/day on the same. Correspondingly, men in urban areas spent a total of 29 minutes, while men in rural areas spent 32 minutes on unpaid care work.
The sheer lack of cognisance of the work women put in (by women themselves and others) to ensure a safe, comfortable and functioning house for the workers to come back to has far-reaching effects on various dimensions.
In her seminal work, Political Economy of Women’s Liberation, Margaret Benston rightly points out how bringing women into the productive workforce without first socialising domestic care work worsens their oppressed condition. While anxiety experienced in work-life balance is common to both men and women, it becomes a rather gendered experience when you take into account how domestic care work is socialised to be a woman’s primary responsibility.
Although husbands have evolved to be “supportive” of their wives having a career, the conventional family structure and social perception still remain to shrink the full spectral agency and aspirations of women. Four out of five women interviewed for the study have reported having let go of a higher ranking position at least once during their career span owing to their pregnancy, postnatal health ailment, infant care or homebound responsibilities.
Five out of five women have reported travel and outstation mobility to be a limitation due to their caregiving responsibility towards their child and extended family, a factor that could potentially affect their higher growth. Even with encouraging spouses and families, women have consistently experienced “motherhood anxiety”, “regret” and “guilt” in having to be away from their child. They have considered taking a break at least once owing to emotional breakdowns and being “overwhelmed” by their responsibilities. Do policy creations make a note of this significant depletion of physical/emotional resources (owing to unpaid care work) before accommodating women into the labour force?
Lack of cognisance about the finer aspects of accommodating women into the labour force leads to an unequal level playing field for them. This, in turn, inevitably affects their performance, finally paving the way for the vile practices of the wage gap and workplace discrimination. The structural inequalities remain discredited, worse unacknowledged, and the gap between the sexes is even more widened with overtly and sometimes rationalised sexist practices.
Several studies have found increased discrimination of mothers over non-mothers, married women over single women and so on, making the “motherhood penalty” an empirical reality. Candidates who are mothers are on the receiving end of skewed callback rates over non-mothers.
Employers perceive mothers to be less competent at work and more committed to their homes. Mothers and married women are also reported to be seven times more likely to lose their jobs in situations of crisis, making their employment a far more vulnerable one than men. How far before mothers start to internalise their reduced self-worth and impose a ‘glass ceiling’ over their heads? How, then, do we enable women, mothers and wives with the agency to self-actualise their professional aspirations? How do we reduce their persistent sense of anxiety, self-doubt, diffidence, and unsurity?
To begin with, a stringent rejection of the “superwoman” narrative is of absolute necessity. It would help offer visibility to the majority population of women who have a hard time balancing their roles ordained by patriarchy along with their work. Visibility and acknowledgement would make women feel less isolated and alienated in their experience of doubly oppressed individuals.
A gender-sensitive workforce, one that is alert and empathetic to differences vis-a-vis sex and gender, is instrumental in levelling the playing field. Policy creations that take into account the psychological and physiological essentialities of motherhood, pregnancy and child care. Policy creations that delegate care work from women to men by enabling tangible provisions for men (beyond just paternity leaves) to participate in the care work.
Flexible work timings work from the home provision for all married employees and early parents and not just new mothers, so the division of care work becomes truly non-gendered. Institutional creches must be made mandatory for workplaces to accommodate toddlers and children. The state must fund and invest in affordable, safe and surveilled playschools beyond just the metropolitan cities. Organisational transparency in wages for all employees at a singular management level must be enabled for increased accountability. Any publicised wage disparity would risk an organisation’s reputation.
In every conceivable way, to view care work as a paradigm of magnanimity that neither asks for nor requires compensation is a pithy presumption at best. It is beyond high time to acknowledge and reciprocate the immense workforce behind the empathy that is by far taken for granted. The best day to take the first step was yesterday; the next best is today.
Featured image source: Scroll