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Indian women have no time to work outside the house

columns Updated: Mar 10, 2017 20:40 IST
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A woman makes fresh spices for her family of seven at a slum, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India (Burhaan Kinu/HT)

Fifty-nine years ago when my mother, a full-fledged lawyer with a fledging practice, got married, she declared that she would no longer work. In her worldview, careers and marriages were simply incompatible.

Just how much has changed — or not — became clear with a new survey that finds that while many women want both careers and time at home, a significant number only want to stay home.

The first survey of this magnitude — some 149,000 men and women across 142 countries — looks at attitudes to work. The largest numbers (41%), want a paying job and time at home, finds the study by the International Labor Organization and Gallup. But only 29% of women globally want full-time paid jobs while 27% want to stay home.

The findings tie in with India where 30% want paid jobs. But the numbers who want to stay home are significantly higher at 41%, with only 22% who want both.

The survey comes at a time when India’s female labour force participation has been steadily declining from 35% in 1990 to 27% in 2014. Ironically, the number of girls with more than 10 years of schooling has been steadily increasing from 22.3% in 2005 to 35.7% in 2015.

The statistics are grim. Among G20 nations, we hover above Saudi Arabia with only 27% of women aged 15 and older in the workforce, finds an International Monetary Fund paper. And 25 million women have left the workforce in the past decade finds data analysis website IndiaSpend.

You would imagine that unprecedented economic growth post liberalisation, not to mention greater educational attainment, would result in more women in paid jobs. In fact, the opposite has happened.

It’s a mystery that has vexed economists and policywalas, and while there’s no definitive answer, there are several theories.

In October, a team of Harvard faculty researchers questioned single, rural women aged between 18 and 25 to find that family and marriage were cited as the biggest constraints to paid work.

Balancing paid work with family life is a challenge all women face. But only in India, found a survey, do women spend 298 minutes a day cooking, cleaning and looking after kids and parents, compared to a pathetic 19 minutes a day spent on similar work by Indian men.

When the burden of unpaid care work falls so disproportionately on women, is there any time to work outside the house? If anything, rising family incomes are likely to result in women opting out of the workforce so that they can “take better care of their homes”.

There are, of course, other reasons: Not enough flexi-time options, for instance, or unsafe public transport and harassment at the workplace. Existing gender pay gaps are also a deterrent. The latest Monster Salary Index report finds that Indian men earn 25% more than women. The biggest gaps are not just in traditional sectors like manufacturing but also in newer sectors like information and communication technology.

Unequal pay for the same work tells us how we as a society value men and women. But the benefits of getting more women into paid work accrue not just to GDP but to women themselves: If she’s viewed as a productive economic asset, her prestige increases and so does the investment in her education and health.

Yet, nothing will change unless we first change social attitudes to unpaid care work.

So, while increasing paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks is a laudable step, it also reinforces the stereotype that child-rearing is a woman’s job (those who say men cannot breastfeed have clearly never heard of a breast pump). In fact, some activists fear that giving women six months off from work will become an obstacle to their career advancement.

When a significant proportion of women say they want to stay home, the message is clear: Gender stereotypes about unpaid care work and a woman’s place in it remain prevalent. My mother grappled with this 59 years ago. The fact that her grand-daughters still have to, should be deeply troubling.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint

The views expressed are personal

@namitabhandare