Are working women in India really as doing well as we hope? Find out in this essay on the changing status of women in India in and out of the workplace.
India is one of the nations having the fastest-growing number of career women in the world but slipped two spots to 131 on the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP’s) human development index (HDI 2020), ranking low on gender equality.
We’ve been enjoying the benefits of being an independent nation for the past six decades. According to the Constitution, men and women must be considered equal. However, women started enjoying equal rights only just before the start of the new millennium.
Moreover, this is true mostly for women in the urban areas of the country. Rural women, who form the majority of the Indian female population, have yet to catch up with the concept of professional work, although women there are used to working in farms and cottage industries.
The modern workplace has changed for the better. What this means for the position of women in India is that almost every woman has the chance to become who she wants to be – from an astronaut to a businesswoman – provided she is given the opportunity to do so.
People get hired by companies located on the other side of the planet, which seems amazing, but it is all thanks to the power of the Internet. Career choices have become more diverse, and more companies are getting ready to experiment with their recruitment policies.
However, when it comes to the current status of working women in India, a question remains unanswered – has anything changed over two decades of boasting a growth in women empowerment in India?
Although we all like to think that India has become more welcoming to women who are working outside the home, there are some fundamental problems faced by working women, as was the case even two decades back.
What is the present status of women in the Indian workplace? This article on the changing status of women in our society will shed some light on the answers that we all seek.
What Is The Present Status Of Working Women In India?
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted women’s participation in the workforce with women experiencing unprecedented job losses across the world due to the pandemic. Women are now spending 15 hours more in unpaid labour each week than men.
While the already existing trend of women withdrawing themselves from the workforce in India has intensified, recent job stagnation and high unemployment rates for women, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, also kept women out of the labour force.
In India, women’s labour force participation rate is just 20.3% as of 2020, compared to 76.0% of men and rural women are leaving India’s workforce at a faster rate than urban women.
In 2020, women accounted for only 19.9% of the total labour force in India and 60% of women in India in the productive age bracket of 15 to 59 years were engaged in full-time housework.
In comparison, the female labour force participation rate in China is about 59.84% in 2020, meaning almost two-thirds of the country’s women are available to work. Were India to rebalance its workforce, the world’s biggest democracy would be 27% richer, says the Economist.
However, in the Hindu Business Line, Aasha Kapur Mehta argues that these official statistics are misleading because they create the perception that the female work participation rate in India is far lower than in most countries of the world.
The fact is that Indian women participate in the workforce to a far greater extent than is measured by the data. The low workforce participation rate among women in India is a result of not including unpaid work by Indian women.
Women’s contribution to GDP is simply overlooked in farming, manufacturing, construction and small-scale activities, she argues, because a lot of the work they do is unrecognised, invisible, uncounted and either unremunerated or poorly remunerated.
Data in the PLFS report show that if we included work done by women, the share of women engaged in domestic and related work jumps to 44.2% compared to just 0.9% for men in 2017-18.
In India, the unpaid work done by women looking after their homes and children is worth 3.1% of the country’s GDP according to an Oxfam study.
According to the study, unpaid work done by women across the globe amounts to a staggering $10 trillion a year, which is 43 times the annual turnover of the world’s biggest company, Apple.
If women’s paid participation in the formal economy was equivalent to that of men, it would add $28 trillion or 26% to global GDP, according to McKinsey.
However, studies have indeed found that younger women in India do not have better jobs than their mothers, owing to the fact that husbands in urban areas provide financial stability in the family, discouraging females from going out and earning.
Also, since many young girls pursue higher education in urban areas, they have not yet joined the workforce. In addition, about 80% of the daughters born to non-working mothers, end up not working.
So, if you’re wondering about the current economic role and status of women in India, the answers are not that clear.
If there is truly a decline in the number of working women in India, the reasons for that are most likely the pressure that Indian women feel in trying to balance their careers and home.
We can classify the causes of such a gender-based economic inequality in two separate categories, the first one being the challenges women face outside the workplace, i.e. from society at large, and the ones they face in their workplace.
Let us find out what these challenges are and how to overcome them.
The Challenges Indian Women Face Outside The Workplace
The patriarchy and women’s self-esteem
The changing status of women in India involves a transition from homemaker to professional. This has unnerved a large number of Indian men who were not brought up by working moms.
Work is seen either as a temporary evil for women whose husbands do not earn enough, or the domain of women who do not “know their place.” As a result, Indian working women don’t get the respect they deserve in the workplace from their male colleagues.
Most Indian men are yet to come to terms with the fact that women are also capable of competing with them in any field or professional sphere.
They are unable to accept the fact that women are finding their place in the workplace, working shoulder-to-shoulder with them and would rather think of women as being in charge of the kitchen and other domestic affairs.
Such insecure members of the male species are given to putting down their female colleagues and attempting to damage their self-esteem to assuage their own ego.
In the workplace, they may undermine them, dismiss their efforts, mansplain, and may even try to sabotage their work to make women feel less confident of their abilities and achievements.
The “second shift”
Sociologists Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung used “the second shift” to refer to the responsibilities of childcare and housework borne disproportionately by women, in addition to their paid labour.
Indian society is patriarchal by nature, and the status of women in society is mostly that of a “home manager” while men are expected to be the sole bread-winners in the family.
The role of women in India is primarily to get an education with the aim of tutoring her children and managing the household. Even if women want to earn money to share expenses, their partners still expect them to look after the family and home.
No matter how high their position or designation in the office, women in India are still viewed as the family manager back home.
According to the Oxfam study, women’s ability to undertake paid work is not merely determined by economic considerations but also by social norms.
Women are expected to return home at a certain time, cook, clean and take care of family affairs. This creates a huge burden, one that even top leaders like PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi were unable to escape from.
In fact, in India, men who help out around their house often become the butt of jokes of their male friends. This makes life extremely stressful for women who have little help around the house and have to do it all.
According to the PLFS report over 50% of regular wage/salaried women workers in India were not entitled to paid leave (leave during sickness, maternity, etc. without loss of pay) in 2017-18.
As women have a bigger burden of household work in Indian households, they cannot take jobs that don’t allow them the option of taking leave to tend to household needs.
This is one of the primary reasons why fewer Indian women enter the workforce.
The curse of “unentitlement”
Pioneering Stanford-based family researchers Phil and Carolyn Cowan believe that a significant reason for this inequality is that women do not feel entitled to putting their own needs, comforts or ambitions first, in relation to their male partners.
The Cowans call this phenomenon “unentitlement.” Many married women in India refrain from working long hours in the office, making them seem less competent and committed to their careers than unmarried women.
Gender psychologist, Sandra Bem, has written that women can empower themselves by taking their own preferences, goals and experiences seriously, and expecting their partners to take them seriously as well.
Women must begin to see their own activities, Bem says, “as no less important and no less deserving of special consideration than those of the men in their lives.”
If men took on part of the household responsibilities from women so that their wives could contribute in a bigger way to developing the nation’s economy, the condition of women in India would improve significantly, as would our reputation in empowering women.
The good news is that attitudes are changing in urban India, and the media is beginning to reflect and amplify those attitudes, as this recent advertisement shows.
The Challenges Indian Women Face in The Workplace
In the section below, we highlight some of the challenges Indian women continue to face in the workplace.
The infamous glass ceiling
The imaginary ceiling to which a woman can grow in her career is a concept that is taken for granted in Indian society and is thrown around a lot with respect to women in the corporate sector.
There are several reasons why very few women make it to the top rungs of a firm – family commitments and gender discrimination in the workplace are just two of them.
When two people are considered for the same role, most of the time a male employee is chosen over a woman simply because they don’t have as many strings attached like pregnancy and childcare.
The wage gap
One of the raging topics of debate in the context of problems faced by working women (not only in India but also in many other nations) is that of equal pay.
Legally, a woman is entitled to get the same salary as her male colleagues for the same kind of work done by them. However, gender discrimination is rampant as many companies still do not adhere to these guidelines and pay women less than their male colleagues.
Let us take a look at how much women earn today in comparison to men. Studies show that in any professional field, there is a significant gap between the paycheck a woman receives at the end of the month and the much higher revenue a man makes even if he performs the same job.
Women represent around 51% of the global workforce. However, in 2014, they were active within full-time jobs, yet they earned on average only 79% of men’s annual income.
In the last 10 years – between 2005 and 2014 – India has witnessed a massive decline in the number of women workers, the highest in the world.
One reason for this could be the massive gap in salaries of men and women, with female techies earning 29% less than men in IT companies. According to the PLFS statistics, men in India are paid, on average, 1.2 to 1.7 times more than women.
On the 24th of October, 2016, around 2:38 PM, thousands of women in Iceland left work early and headed to Austurvollur square in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik to make a statement about the fact that they were paid less than men.
While symbolic, this action demonstrated to the world that, even in a relatively progressive nation like Iceland where women make up almost half of Parliament, there is still progress to be made in terms of the wage gap.
The uncaring employer
In Indian society, a married woman is expected to bear children at some point in time. Most women get maternity leave in their workplace and also rejoin work after their baby’s birth.
India has one of the most progressive laws for maternity benefits since the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, increased the duration of paid maternity leave for women employees from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.
It also introduced an enabling provision relating to “work from home” for women, which may be exercised after the 26-weeks’ leave period, depending upon the nature of work and agreement with their employer.
It also gave maternity leave to adoptive and commissioning mothers (those opting for surrogacy) and made a crèche facility mandatory for every establishment employing 50 or more employees.
However, research has revealed that less than half of working women feel that they are treated the same way as their male colleagues in similar roles.
Only 34 per cent agree that their employer cares about them and understands the specific issues that women face in the workplace, and only a third agree that their employer is making an effort to improve the workplace for women.
Just 30 per cent of women agree that their employer provides wellbeing initiatives that cater specifically to women’s needs, such as periods, menopause, and pregnancy.
Employers have also admitted that India’s increased maternity benefits may backfire by creating an anti-women bias in hiring practices and deterring businesses from hiring women so you can understand the disadvantage that motherhood confers upon working women in India.
That said, a new mother goes through a drastic life change, whether she is working or not, and it becomes very difficult to balance life and work when you have an infant who demands a significant part of your attention.
This is the primary reason why many new moms are forced to leave work of their own accord or terminated by their employers for erratic attendance and other professional inconsistencies.
The “motherhood penalty”
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology confirmed inherent biases against expectant mothers that make them feel unwelcome in the workplace.
Many working women feel they are being pushed out of their jobs when they become pregnant while new fathers often get a boost in their careers, say researchers from Florida State University who conducted the study.
Known as the “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood premium”, researchers have attributed both to old cultural stereotypes that favour fathers as breadwinners and women as caregivers. This is not just prevalent in India, but all over the world.
The findings indicate that as expectant moms receive reduced career encouragement at work, they experience lower motivation to stay with the organisation or in the workforce.
What if she resigns because she needs to take care of a parent or a child? What if she quits because her husband needs to move out of the city? These are just a couple of questions that run through the employer’s mind.
Even when seeking a new job, new moms are not the first choice of hiring managers, who would prefer to hire an unmarried woman with few responsibilities, rather than a mother with kids in tow.
Firms like Infosys, Ernst & Young and Zomato have women employee-friendly policies for maternity leave. But in a lot of other companies, women are forced to either quit or cut short their break post-childbirth, depending on their financial condition.
A large study on hiring bias also discovered that, among women in their 30s applying to part-time jobs, those who were married and had older children were the most likely to be called back, while married but childless women were the least likely to be called back.
The researchers believe this is because employers consider childless, but married women, at particular ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant.
That means women are having to contend with the motherhood penalty before they even decide whether to have kids or not; and it’s just as bad for young, married women who never plan to become mothers, as for those who do.
Rewarding face time as opposed to results at work
This is a predominant culture in the Indian workplace, where the more you are “seen”, the better you are rewarded.
So while measures that give flexibility like working from home or flexi-hours work well for women, they lose out on a lot of recognition in spite of the hard work that they put in, simply because they are not physically present.
Organizations need to understand that unless they put in genuinely effective measures that will encourage women to work with little hassle, not just the companies, but the Indian economy as a whole will take a big hit.
Descriptive gender stereotypes
The modern workplace shows an evolution of gender discrimination through two methods, namely descriptive and prescriptive gender stereotypes. The descriptive bias regards the set of preconceptions that are attached to a certain group of people.
Professionals see working women in a certain way, such as calm, careful, kind, and other attributes that together form a motherly picture.
This description seems more to fit the responsibilities of a dental hygienist than an authoritative person with leadership qualities.
Since women are often pre-judged as “soft” or “weak-hearted”, people tend not to assign them responsibilities that demand assertiveness and a firm demeanour.
By replacing objective criticism with this unconfirmed image, women suffer in male-dominated professions that require determination, logical thinking, decision making, and problem-solving skills, which the archetype of a loving mother is seen to lack.
Namrata Rao, an engineer in a reputed Telecom firm says, “I wanted to pursue a business development role and I spoke to my manager about it. He started the conversation by saying ‘If you are really serious about your career, my suggestion would be to …’ As soon as he said ‘if you are serious about your career’ I switched off because I was so mad at him.”
Incidents like these are not uncommon. That is why, in India, only 7.7% of board seats are occupied by women.
Overcoming gender-based obstacles in the workplace become easier for women who are successful in developing a personal brand in the workplace. These are the women who actually excel and get promoted to top positions.
Prescriptive gender stereotypes
When a woman breaks away from the stereotype of a motherly figure, she does not, unfortunately, break free from criticism and judgment. On the contrary, she will fall into a deeper layer of discrimination, also called prescriptive bias.
For example, when a woman gets angry at the workplace, she violates a general woman’s attribute as warm. Her anger is viewed as an outcome of her feelings and, hence, invalidated as having nothing to do with the situation at hand.
On the other hand, when a man gets angry, his emotions are described as a natural reaction to a stressful issue. Thus, his reactions are seen as legitimate and professional.
Covert and overt harassment
Suggestive statements made by bosses or peers, a careless brush of the backside, conversation with sexual overtones – these are not uncommon in corporate India.
Organizations usually have a system in place for women employees to report sexual harassment and take legal action. However, there are two major issues here – inability to recognize sexual harassment in some cases, and fear of career setbacks if they report a superior.
It is unfortunate that workplace sexual harassment is still an existing problem in India, as well as abroad. Many companies have had to pay a high price for lawsuits where female employees have won cases against predatory managers or colleagues.
Due to laws that protect women at the workplace, and the sensitivity programs hosted by companies that teach employees how to avoid harassment on the job, overt harassment has seen a substantial decrease.
However, since direct sexual harassment is now a serious problem and can result in losing one’s job, a new form of sexual harassment has made its presence felt.
This toxic trend takes a covert form, which makes it less obvious, and thus harder to call out. These can be sexist jokes or remarks and asking for favours from female colleagues that can exempt men from extra workload.
All these forms of covert harassment can contribute to a hostile work environment where women have to deal with bigger challenges than men. This can lead to trauma that affects a woman’s self-esteem and makes her question her ability to deal with workplace issues.
The good news is that a whopping 87 per cent of professionals in India (compared to 71 per cent globally) now say that harassment prevention at the workplace is a very important trend for the future of hiring and HR, according to a new LinkedIn report.
More companies now talk about their harassment policies as part of their pitch to potential hires, and have implemented some harassment prevention action in the last 12 months or are planning to.
Employees are also starting to feel more empowered to stand up against harassment – not just by calling for change, but by changing their own workplace behaviour, said the LinkedIn report.
The safety of women employees
Especially in BPO companies and in many IT firms, employees are required to work for very long hours. Shweta Chawla, an employee of an IT firm says, “My company has cabs for us to use when we get delayed, but who’s to say we’re safe even in the cabs at 11 pm?”
There have been several cases of women employees of BPO organizations being raped and murdered by cab drivers in the wee hours of the morning. Security is a factor that is extremely important when a woman makes a choice about working.
The challenges of travelling for work
One of the problems faced by married working women is that they cannot travel or go on tours without having to answer uncomfortable questions from their friends and family.
This is especially true for married women who also have a flourishing career. Their professional obligations often depend on the support and understanding of family members.
A married man can go on long official tours outside his home city, without raising eyebrows and questions from his family members and peers, but his equally-successful wife would face disapproval.
As a result, women often have to opt-out of jobs that involve travel and settle for being overlooked for promotions and opportunities to grow, as a result.
The safety of women on business trips
The “nosey questions factor” aside, there is still the concern for the safety of working women who need to travel on official business.
Women travelling out of their home city for work trips are considered vulnerable and an easy target to fulfil the lewd intentions of their chauvinist male colleagues. Sending women on official trips is also considered risky and unsafe by many companies.
Checking into a hotel alone is often a challenge for working women, even if the trip is official. Many hotels refuse to allot a room to a single woman, under strange pretexts, because of their own safety concerns. And if a woman decides to stay alone, she is viewed with suspicion.
Nitin Khanna (name changed), HR Head in a leading MNC, says, “It is an unspoken rule in our organization to recruit women for typical ‘9-5 desk jobs’. We already had some issues with prior female workers regarding temporary relocations or going out for official tours, which caused us to take this step. However, if we come across a suitably qualified and experienced resource, we don’t let gender get in the way.”
The future of work holds challenges and opportunities
According to a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, “The future of women at work: Transitions in the age of automation,” many of the long-established barriers that prevent women from accessing equality in the workplace today could further imperil women workers in the age of automation and artificial intelligence.
Between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles.
We must all be skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy, to survive in the future job market, but women face pervasive barriers on each and will need targeted support to move forward in the world of work.
But the McKinsey report also found some good news for women, especially those who are prepared, so the future may be promising for women if they can adapt.
For instance, women are more likely than men to have their jobs partially automated, leaving room for women to work alongside machines.
Why And How We Must Improve The Work Environment For Women In India
According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, India has one of the largest opportunities in the world to boost GDP by advancing women’s equality — $770 billion of added GDP by 2025 — but this would require comprehensive change.
The report addresses two specific opportunities to address women’s lack of access to the fundamental enablers of economic opportunity:
- Increasing women’s access to digital technologies and financial products
- Reducing the time women spend on unpaid care work
McKinsey’s research suggests that 97% of all female workers in India are active in the informal sector, engaged in low-paying activities and domestic work. “Improving the quality of work and its remuneration and enhancing the well-being of such women are an urgent priority,” the report noted.
India could reduce the time women spend on unpaid care work by filling gaps in essential infrastructure, including childcare, and promoting labour-saving technologies such as clean cooking stoves.
But it would also require social and behavioural change and employers can play a role in catalysing such change by encouraging their male employees to bear a bigger share of household responsibilities.
Today, people are waking up to the fact that women are competent workers in almost all fields. Organisations, both big and small, are going all out to hire women for various positions.
Women must fight against discriminatory attitudes and hostile work environments by taking charge of the situation and making themselves aware of the laws and rights they are entitled to.
They need to be expressive and assertive when faced with unfair treatment and fight for their rights as aggressively as their male colleagues would. Many organizations now have women support groups that allow female employees to vent their grievances and discuss suitable solutions.
Policies like the Delhi government’s initiative to make travel free for women could also bring gender parity in terms of wages and help in bridging the gender gap in the labour market if it ends up saving even Rs 50 for a casual women worker in travelling expenses.
Technically, the Government of India is in favour of equal rights and working conditions for working women. It has introduced several policies and laws for women empowerment in India that find relevance, both in the topmost tier as well as the grass-root level of organizations.
Unfortunately, these are not adequately publicized and many women are not even aware of their existence. If all working women are educated about these laws and regulations, their status in the workforce would greatly improve.
Organizations that recruit women in their workforce need to be more proactive in keeping a tab on employees and scrutinizing everything that seems to be working against their female employees.
They need to provide clear terms and policies regarding equal and fair play in their workplace and promise to take strict actions against those who discriminate against women or resort to sexual harassment at work.
Rajarshi Guha, Quality Head of a popular marketing company, says, “We have clear and well-defined rules and regulations in our company regarding fair treatment to all our female workers. We take strict action against those who even hint at any sort of unfair partiality towards the women here, though the cases are very rare.”
Family values also play a pivotal role in shaping our attitudes and mindsets towards the opposite sex. Every Indian male must be taught to respect women and treat them as equals from an early age. Only then will the need for rules or laws protecting women’s rights be deemed unnecessary.
In India, women are certainly not sitting idle, a fact that is evident from the way they work shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts, whether in fields and farms, or in the office, or in managing the household.
Every day we hear success stories of women in India who are breaking age-old barriers and traditions, forging their own path and achieving great things in work and life.
However, when it comes to women in the workplace, India has to go a long way to change the status of women in Indian society and ensure financial freedom for women.
If India treated her women better and Indian women were a bigger part of its workforce, the world’s biggest democracy would be 27% richer.
Till then, we need to work on empowering women to find jobs and to help career women in India overcome challenges in the workplace and outside it. One way women can surmount these challenges is to opt for remote work options or work-from-home jobs.
This will allow them to integrate home and work without having to give up their career or lose the feelings of self-worth and fulfilment that their work gives them.
Need free career counselling and career guidance in India? Download the SHEROES app for women and get free career advice from career professionals.
Do you agree or disagree with this assessment of the problems faced by working women in India? Do you have something to add? What are the issues that you or your friends have faced in the workplace? Do comment below and let us know.
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