“New India’s’’ Inflexible Workforce – Caring is but Women’s Work: Shalini Grover, Ellina Samantroy, Nupur Dhingra Paiva


A recent BBC article, ‘Why Motherhood Makes Indian Women Quit Their Jobs’ (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-32377275), examines the factors that prompt large numbers of women to drop out of India’s workforce. Despite the country’s growing international reputation as the “new India,” with its allure of economic prosperity, globalized cities, and modern lifestyles, it is not clear how much of the female labour force is contributing to paid employment. Liberalization has indeed opened up opportunities for an entire cohort of young urban women who work in IT, outsourcing, hospitality, media, beauty parlours, cafes, and malls. Ironically, in a period of high growth and open markets, labour surveys such as those conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) reveal an overall declining rate of female labour force participation, an issue that has become a serious concern for policy makers. A World Bank study (2013) found that only 27 per cent of Indian women over the age of 15 work outside the home. While such surveys have their limitations in that they often do not take into account informal employment, the World Bank study is significant because it indicates that India has the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries.

What makes the labour force in India so male dominated? And what makes the workplace so hostile to working mothers?

The Indian government so far has not ratified ILO Convention No. 156 of 1981, which calls for equal treatment of men and women coping with family responsibilities. This convention states that either parent should have the opportunity, in the period immediately following the end of maternity leave, of obtaining leave of absence from paid employment without relinquishing full rights in the workplace. So far, 43 countries have ratified Convention No. 156, while India and many South Asian countries have still not done so. The countries that have ratified this convention have witnessed higher rates of employment. In Western Europe, where the gender gap has narrowed, part-time work has been a boon and proved to be a viable solution to the problem of retaining a large female workforce. The notion of part-time or flexible work with a package of full entitlements and social security is still an alien concept in India. At the most, women in high positions manage to retain a foothold in their professions because of the personal relationships they have forged with their superiors. As a result of informal negotiations, these working mothers are permitted to cut their work hours, or to take a break for some months, or to become consultants.

Nevertheless, when families are raising small children, for one spouse to effectively work part-time for some years at least is often the only viable arrangement.

Asha, who is highly qualified, worked in a private bank for many years. She managed to continue working after her first child was born. After the birth of her second child, she could not keep up with the long working hours: ‘Today I would have been in a profession for which I had specifically trained if the option of part-time work existed. Two of my colleagues gave up their jobs because of the inflexible hours.’

Even in so-called liberal spaces such as multilateral organizations and universities that are at the forefront of the campaign for gender equality, the employed workforce is largely full time. Younger couples who combine working at ‘demanding jobs’ with the rearing of children are almost an anomaly. For male and female colleagues to discuss the work–life balance is not really considered ‘fashionable’ or appropriate. The pressure of answering e-mails around the clock, and evidence that the academic is fully engaged, is often the image one has to portray to one’s department. Moreover, female academics have to negotiate maternity leave in ways that are never straightforward, while simultaneously being confronted by awkward questions about their commitment to family and career advancement.

Yet across the social divide, ask any dual income couple the daunting task of arranging a full day of child-care. Given that most Indian cities have inadequate crèches, daycare centres, and facilities for the elderly, working couples are overwhelmingly dependent on domestic workers. The normal practice is to hire  a ‘live-in,’ that is, if the employer-family can find one. Given the changing realities of urban life in contemporary India, domestic help is no longer easy to find.

Maya and her husband relocated to India from the United Kingdom to care for their aging parents. They are dismayed at how difficult it is to find reliable household help: ‘I always imagined India to be the land of plentiful help. Never once did I think we would face problems here. But no one has stayed with us for more than six months. One of our live-in maids returned to her village, while the other decided to marry. Looking after aging parents and pursuing full-time careers has been most challenging.’

Nonetheless, let us for one minute consider the constraints faced by working-class domestic workers and migrants when they opt for paid care work, and the various survival strategies that poor women are compelled to adopt. Whether in crowded bastis or low-income neighbourhoods, it is primarily the woman’s job to fetch water in the morning (say, from the municipal tap), to clean the house, to cook the food, to perform other household chores, and then to catch a bus, which may be late or which may never appear at all, to her employer’s home. It is heartbreaking to see the immense guilt experienced by female domestic workers when they leave their own children at home to take care of the infants of their employers. Additionally, they have to deal with harassment and innuendo by their menfolk who accuse the women of avoiding work (these men display ‘shak ki bimari’ or the illness of suspicion and distrust) ostensibly to meet other men. These highly undervalued care givers in our society, who take on great burdens and face serious risks, are often constrained in committing to the ‘jobs’ of caring for ‘our’ children. Given some of the problems associated with private care, we are left with the framework of the state and the family. The former takes no responsibility whatsoever, while the latter is often the only support network on which women can rely, and that too if grandparents reside in the same city. Hence, it is imperative for the state to step in urgently to provide effective and meaningful alternatives. Good quality and affordable state-sponsored care is the need of the hour if the economy of the ‘new India’ is to radically move forward, one that accommodates women of all ages across the social strata.

It is striking that women, regardless of their class position, devote a significant portion of their time to performing unpaid household work. When a child falls ill, it is taken for granted that it will be the mother who will take the day off from work to provide care. How many professional or businessmen fathers take time off from work to look after a sick child? Or even to attend parent-teacher meetings? Across India, the demands of competitive schooling means that parents are under constant pressure to ensure that children finish homework on time and keep up with numerous activities and competitions at school. Dealing with the pressures of schooling requires full-time, hands-on assistance – and almost inevitably it is the mother who shoulders this responsibility single-handedly. But till date there has been little or no critical dialogue, particularly in cities, on the links between schooling, working lives, and the care economy. Overstretched families and single mothers without support systems must clearly work things out for themselves.

From our respective disciplinary backgrounds of psychology, gender studies, and social anthropology, we must reiterate that that these debates on the traditional roles of men and women are taking place not only in India, but also in Western industrialized countries. In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s nuanced reflections in her article in The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/), engendered a passionate global debate on the subject. It contributed to an understanding of the struggles of working women in the United States, their personal choices regarding the work–life balance, and the low value attached to care giving in a ‘first world’ economy and society. Such cross-cultural conversations on the importance and value of caring as work must continue today if women are to change gender inequality across the world and if men are to join women as equal caregivers of their loved ones, be it their children or their aging parents.


*Shalini Grover is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi


*Ellina Samantroy is Associate Fellow, Centre for Gender and Labour, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida


*Nupur Dhingra Paiva is a Clinical Child Psychologist in private practice and Visiting Lecturer at   Ambedkar University, Delhi 


3 thoughts on ““New India’s’’ Inflexible Workforce – Caring is but Women’s Work: Shalini Grover, Ellina Samantroy, Nupur Dhingra Paiva”

  1. Reblogged this on Five Senses … and commented:
    Women would continue to drop out and be ‘poor performers’ as long as the mindset at the very root level of our society glorifies their role at home and negates their contribution to the work@office.


  2. As the BBC article points out, I think it is time to ensure that the laws that are in place are adhered to properly and employers do not act as though sanctioning maternity leave is a an act of charity.


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