India, We Have A Problem

Business Woman Has To Choose Between Two Way

Yesterday was the 8th of March. It was hard to miss – there was much celebrating women and their empowerment. I woke up to cheery What’s App messages telling me how special I am. Social Media, of course, has seen a lot of brouhaha about women, with blithe pink and purple posters flooding people’s timelines. No doubt many catchy hashtags have trended. Hospitals, airlines, retailers and the like have offered discounts to women. Organizations have conducted panel discussions and workshops. Mentors have done their bit to pay-it-forward. So, it’s been good, yes. I also had the opportunity to read some great articles and watched some moving videos.

But, here’s the thing. Today, this will pretty much stop (or come to a trot, at best). March, much like spring, is much too short, and when it recedes it takes with it all the enthusiasm on gender diversity (for most, exceptions aside). There will also be, for lack of a better phrase – “cause fatigue”, as champions will find themselves recovering from the March Madness.

The truth is that it will take more than a month in the year to bring about real change. We are pretty much near the bottom of female workforce participation ladder. The matter is so grave that The Economist did a cover story on it last July, which stated some grim numbers, (came as a surprise to many). The assumption was that as India progresses, its women too are making strides into unchartered territories. But, it’s not that simple. India is a land of dichotomies – so, while women are venturing into areas traditionally seen as male-dominated, the truth is that too many women are falling off the work trajectory at the other end (and men are not getting into areas traditionally seen as women’s domain either, which is what actually exacerbates the issue). The reasons are many (patriarchy, social conditioning, lack of support and opportunities, safety..)

However, before we diagnose the causes of the problem, let’s get a bird’s eye view of some of the hard facts. And dismal statistics.

  1. The female employment rate in India, counting both the formal and informal economy, has tumbled from an already-low 35% in 2005 to just 26% now
  2. From 2005 to now, the economy has more than doubled in size and the number of working-age women has grown by a quarter, to 470m. Yet nearly 10m fewer women are in jobs.
  3. Men have taken 90% of the 36m additional jobs in industry India has created since 2005
  4. Between 2004 – 2012, 20 million Indian women quit jobs.
  5. 65-70% of women who quit never return to work at all.
  6. 48% of women drop out within four months of returning from maternity leave.
  7. 50% drop out mid-career before the age of 30 because of childcare.
  8. Only 16% of senior leadership roles are held by women in India.
  9. Census data suggest that a third of stay-at-home women would work if jobs were available
  10. India ranks 142nd out of 149 countries in the economic opportunity and participation subindex for women.

The Problem That Has No Name (with due apologies to Betty Friedan)

So, clearly there’s a problem. And it needs tackling on several fronts. While we need to get more women into the workforce to begin with, we also need to ensure that the ones who do work are able to sustain their careers. As the statistics above tell us, 50% of women drop out in the prime of their careers because of childcare. This is because the professional path almost always runs parallel to the domestic one. For most women who become caregivers (to parents or children), it’s either a career or family life. The ones who do manage to balance both are, usually, the ones for whom many factors converge – family support, a supportive working environment, their own ambition and abilities, and of course, luck (yes, it plays an important role). But, as the numbers reveal, not many are able to get this ideal combination.

So, what’s to be done? How can we create an enabling ecosystem where women can not only work, but also sustain themselves? The problem needs to be addressed on two primary fronts – professional and personal

Hire. Retain. Sustain.

Let’s first consider what organizations can do. To begin with they can hire more women, especially in those areas where the representation is low (tech, for instance). But that, while it will help, will not solve the problem. Research shows that women usually drop out mid-career – mainly because of childcare. It is here, during these life stages, that women need the maximum support. The new maternity bill is a step in the right direction, (though that, in many cases has been counterproductive, but that’s for another post). Women need maximum support when they return from maternity leave, because this is when the balance between work and family proves to be the hardest to strike. They also often face pressure from their families (in-laws, parents, spouse) to quit work. There are some great examples of how some organizations have tried innovative approaches to address this. The health care unit of General Electric Co. in India, for instance, started a programme that allowed mothers-in-law to come into the office to see what their engineer daughters-in-law did. This worked brilliantly, with the mothers-in-law actually feeling proud of their daughters-in-law and understanding that they need to work. Cisco has also tried something similar. Involving family, thus, is one way. But that may not always work. Having a supportive manager who sets the right tone within the team is critical for women to stay the course during their life stages. It is also important to run gender intelligence workshops to sensitize the teams to issues faced by women at the workplace. This is a critical piece that, while intangible, bears fruit and leads to a better balance.

Men be the Equal Half

On the home front, we need men to support the women – in the real sense of the word. The home is, primarily, believed to be the woman’s domain. A man’s share of the home load is seen as a good-to-have-but-not-essential. This needs to change – men and women collectively need to work and manage the home. If a woman can take a child to a workplace crèche, so can the man – because parenting is for both, not for the mother alone. But that’s not how it works for majority of the women in India. Women either give up work (thus surrendering their aspirations for the sake of their families) or, if they do work, they also run their homes, often single-handedly. We like to believe in the whole nurture theory, that women are caregivers by nature (not true – it’s more conditioning than nature – as Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”). But, so deeply ingrained are the roles in our minds that even the most liberal of us find ourselves falling into a trap. We routinely praise fathers who father their children – as in take care of them, do homework for them, cook for them etc – “you’re lucky”, is what we say to women married to such men, and we are quick to judge mothers who prioritize their careers over their families.

So yes, we’re a long way from gender equality. Women are still, very much the Second Sex. And so they shall remain, till we, as a society do not challenge patriarchy and notions of masculinity and womanhood. Men and women need to come together and work towards creating an enabling ecosystem for women to work. It’s time for men to become, not the better half, not the other half, but a true Equal Half.

March may come and March may go, but the support must go on, forever.


By Gopika Kaul


Gopika is the co-founder of Reboot. She is also a content and digital media professional with over two decades of experience across diverse sectors in Hong Kong, U.S. and India. She has led large teams as head of multimedia content at in New Delhi and Time Warner in New York. More recently, she was heading content and digital strategy for First Partners, a communications agency based in Noida, before she quit to join Reboot as co-founder.

She has written for the op-ed section for The Times of India, International Business Times, Huffington Post, Daily O and Qiddle, to name a few. Gopika is also the founder of Reboot Mag – the voice of Reboot – a space for healthy exchange of ideas, opinions and thoughts on issues closest to women’s hearts.

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