Is moral policing the newest deterrent to female labour force participation?

Updated on Aug 19, 2022 12:02 PM IST

The recent case at St Xavier's University demonstrates that working women need legal protections and functioning institutional mechanisms in place at the workplace. Without this, women may feel discouraged to work.

Kolkata’s St Xavier’s University. (sxccal.edu) PREMIUM
Kolkata’s St Xavier’s University. (sxccal.edu)

Last week, working women across India awakened to a new reality. In this reality, posting “morally objectionable” photos of oneself on one’s private social media channels, can now be grounds to be asked to quit one’s job, or even face monetary damages for harming the reputation of an employer. And this risk of losing one’s job owing to moral policing is borne exclusively by women – for it appears that they are now the guardians of not only their family honour, but also of that of their employers.

The recent incident of a female professor allegedly being asked to quit by her employer, St Xavier’s University, Kolkata based on a complaint by the father of an 18-year-old male student has sent shockwaves through to every working woman with an active social media profile.

How did this boy access her photos despite a private profile? How could her employer or this parent judge her attire while she is not at her workplace? Is it not her employer’s responsibility to protect her from being harassed by this student and his father? And where are the institutions meant to protect women’s rights in such circumstances – the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) committee of the University, West Bengal’s Women’s Rights Commission, and the National Women’s Rights Commission?

As per news reports, the university is now suing their former employee, seeking a sum of 99 crore as damages to their reputation.

We live in a country where, as of 2020-21, only 37% of post-graduate urban women are in the workforce, as opposed to 78% of men. This means that over 60% of women with post-graduate degrees in urban areas are not working. Workforce participation of women with lower levels of education in urban areas is far lower.

Starting from the very decision to gain an education, to entering the labour force, to the nature of work, to the hours spent at work and even the location of their workplace, Indian women face restrictions in their education and employment choices owing to deeply entrenched patriarchal norms.

Women being forced to choose jobs that are closer to home for fear of sexual harassment on public transport, picking up part-time jobs to manage the burden of unpaid care work, or refraining from working in factories and doing office jobs considered “suitable for women” are all examples patriarchal social norms restricting women’s choices and financial independence. Our research establishes that these social norms are amongst the key drivers of falling female labour force participation in India.

We can now add being constantly conscious of what to wear and what to post even on private social media profiles to this list of restrictions for working women.

Moral policing from employers, placing the onus of protecting one’s honour and reputation on employees rather than their harassers, and failure to condemn the use of private social media profiles to cause embarrassment in the workplace – are all actions more likely to be deployed to target and demean women and can ultimately discourage women’s entry and growth in the workforce, even at the macro level.

This case demonstrates that working women not only need legal protections, but also supportive communities, functioning institutional mechanisms, support from government agencies, and above all, a sense of solidarity from their employers to feel safe from harassment. Otherwise, we can continue pondering about why, despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India continues to have among the lowest rates of female labour force participation globally.

Mitali Nikore is founder, Nikore Associates. Mannat Sharma research associate, Nikore Associates, assisted in this article.

The views expressed are personal

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