Frustration was what drove Gurgaon-based Nikita Chopra (name changed on request) too. She finished her MBA earlier this year only to quit her job in advertising, a few months in. “I felt that women just don’t get a seat at the table — their contribution is not acknowledged, their time is not respected, and men talk over them — even those junior to me,” says Chopra.
A couple of decades might separate Narsipur and Chopra but their deep discontent with the workplace has similar roots — the skewed experiences of women in the workforce despite considerable progress on several other parameters such as health and education in the last 75 years.
While Narsipur was able to not just get back on her feet but do one better by launching an enterprise which mostly employs women and Chopra is optimistic of finding another job, many others in similar situations have had to drop out of the workforce — one reason women’s participation, particularly urban women’s, in the labour force has not seen sustained improvements in the years since Independence. The data is damning.
From a labour force participation of 11.9% for urban women in 1955, it went up to 17.8% in 2011-12 and is now at 18.6%, according to the latest periodic labour force survey published in June. “If we look at the most recent data for college graduates in urban India, released in June 2022, around 72% of men have regular, paid jobs while the figure is 23% for female graduates,” says Shrayana Bhattacharya, an economist at the World Bank. The data showing the increased participation of rural women in the workforce, she says, might be due to the economic distress caused by the pandemic.
For economists and those in the development sector, it has long been a puzzle: why are urban women be dropping out of the workforce, despite better educational qualifications and a growing economy which should bring with it more opportunities? One hypothesis is what’s known as the income effect —as income levels of households increase, women workers withdraw from the workforce because families feel it is not necessary for the women to work outside. But Bidisha Mondal, research fellow at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), says this can only be a part of the explanation. “I think the major reason behind the declining labour force participation rate for women from 1993-94 to 2011-12, is the diminishing employment opportunities for women. Lack of employment growth in sectors and occupations where women workers are more likely to work, is limiting the employment opportunities for them,” says Mondal. Then there is the fact that some of the work women do might not be getting recognised during these surveys.
Shinjini Kumar, cofounder of SALT, a fintech startup for women, says many women do small commerce of different types on the internet economy. “They might be on a WhatsApp group, selling something. In one small town I went to, women were buying school supplies online at a reduced price and selling these —this won’t be counted in workforce surveys,” says Kumar, a former CEO of
Women might also not be finding the right kind of opportunities which pays them what their male counterparts are earning. Bhattacharya, also an author, has written about “the discouraged worker effect” in her book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh. “If you look at urban, middle-class women living in cities, which is where you see a big gap, one thing that continues to be an important phenomenon is that women are struggling to find the kind of jobs that will allow flexibility and pay them enough to make it worth going out, leave the caregiving role. This is the discouraged workers effect — where women think, if men are going to earn so much more and I’m not going to get a good job that pays me well and treats me well, why should I take it up,” says Bhattacharya. What she says is not dissimilar to what Narsipur went through before she became an entrepreneur.
Krithika Surianarayanan, a software engineer with GitHub, had more options about life choices than her mother, who was not allowed to work. “My dad who wanted me to be a career woman did not want my mother to work outside,” says Surianarayanan. While she is appreciative of the relative privileges and the fact that she has a supportive family and colleagues, she rues the fact that women are still expected to be “superwomen” since familial responsibilities have not shifted.
“Women are expected to juggle more. Many pull it off, with the help of domestic help and technology,” says the 39-year-old. Thus, one change she would like to see in the next 25 years, she says, is shared parenting and household responsibilities. “The planning alone is draining — like stocking the fridge, planning the next meal, the kids’ holidays.”
According to the NSO’s (National Survey Office) Time Use in India survey in 2019, the average time women were spending on unpaid domestic service for household members was three times that of men, while the average time they spent on unpaid caregiving services for household members was nearly double that of men, at 134 minutes vs 76 minutes. Surianarayanan says she has started doing her bit— by training her young son to do chores at home.
HALF THE PIE
Gendered expectations and responsibilities still disproportionately fall on women’s shoulders. And that is one of the top changes they would like to see in the next 25 years. “Given that marriage is so universal and care labour is just not being readjusted plus the fact that the workplace has not been designed to really champion women all add up to taxes for women. Even the mere act of getting to work is not easy,” says Bhattacharya, who feels patriarchy has become more sophisticated today than earlier. “Men will say all the right things but when it comes to really investing in women who are entering motherhood, or paying them the same as their male colleagues, there are insidious ways in which discrimination is being practised in the elite labour market.”
Kumar would like to see policy interventions that will enable and
women — such as flexibility to work from home, rules that make commerce from home easy and acknowledgement that women who work at home are also working. “Society changes when individuals do things, and that happens when enabling conditions are created,” she says.
Narsipur says women should not be forced to take long breaks due to maternity or made to feel guilty for having had to take time off for it. “We should have frameworks to rebuild and relaunch their careers. I would hope for this to happen in the next 25 years.”