by Karabi Mitra
I recall having a conversation with a classmate during my third year in college when I asked her what she was planning to do after graduation. She replied to me saying that she was planning to get married right after graduation, and wouldn’t be pursuing any career. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Of course, it’s a known fact that, in India, a large percentage of women drop out of the workforce after marriage. I had just never foreseen the same future for any of my classmates.
During my formative years, I never thought of education as an end. It was always a means to an end. Education is critical to understand the world and its ways, to be able to form opinions, and to ultimately make independent choices in life. Unfortunately for Indian women, being educated isn’t enough to be able to make independent choices. Societal whims and customs can be strong enough to overpower a woman’s career aspirations and direct the course of her life. Hence, it is hardly surprising that India’s female labour force participation rate (LFPR) is one of the lowest in the world today. At 27%, India’s female LFPR is dismal. What’s even more alarming is that it has steadily declined over the last decade!
Why it’s an important problem to solve
We have all heard about India’s remarkable growth story. The country’s steadily increasing GDP has helped India secure a place among the world’s fastest-growing economies in the world. However, continuing to exclude women from contributing to India’s economic growth would be anything but wise. It is well-documented that increasing women’s participation in the workforce could help boost India’s GDP significantly. But unless we take the steps necessary to boost women’s LFPR, these projections will only remain as estimates.
To understand how to resolve a problem, it’s important to understand what’s causing it. In India, the role of women has always been to either look after the household or raise children or both. Though mindsets have changed, and cultural norms have evolved to allow women to have fulfilling careers, this evolution has only occurred for a small part of society. A large part of the Indian society still feels that women don’t need to work and should first fulfil their duties in the household. Changing age-old mindsets and customs will take time and cannot happen overnight. But, societal pressure isn’t the only thing making women drop out of the workforce.
Supporting women in the workforce through various transitions
A woman experiences various transitory phases in life during which a little more support may be required. There are two major events during a woman’s life during which she feels compelled to drop out of the workforce: marriage and childbirth. After childbirth, it may be difficult for women to commute to work daily. Though India’s Maternity Policy allows for a phased approach for returning to work, a certain stipulated timeline may not work for all women. Traditionally, the only solution to such predicaments has been to run an independent business with flexible working hours. But, relegating women forcefully to small and medium businesses can’t be the only solution. Digital entrepreneurship is also an option, but once again why should women be forced into entrepreneurship? Some women may already have fulfilling careers as part of a corporate organisation and may wish to continue their career trajectory.
Remote work to the rescue
Large multinational companies can make it easier for women to continue in the workforce or re-enter the workforce after a hiatus by having flexible remote working policies. India has been late to jump on the remote working bandwagon, but it is one solution to India’s low LFPR rate. Working from home can allow mothers to stay with their children and at the same time have a fulfilling career. Remote working has other benefits as well. It allows workers to have more flexible schedules, bypass traffic, and have better work-life balance.
A common complaint is that most of the work-from-home roles are mediocre. Some roles may not match the qualifications of a highly-educated woman. That is why it is even more imperative for the larger and more global companies to allow work-from-home for women in middle to senior leadership positions. It doesn’t make sense for companies to talk about how embracing digital technologies can make life more efficient and then refuse to allow their workers to work from home. It is true that all roles cannot be performed remotely. Certain roles may require a great degree of in-person interaction and collaboration. But even then, it can be argued that for such roles a phased approach can be followed. Women who are re-entering the workforce after a break or are going through a transition in life can come to office for certain days of the week and can work remotely for the rest of the week till they are ready to make a full comeback.
Remote work cannot be a solution in roles where face-to-face interaction is required. This is usually the case for roles in the retail or hospitality sectors. Similarly, operational roles usually require a worker to be present in-person. However, there are several roles for which remote work can be a suitable solution, such as roles in education or customer service. In such cases, companies should introduce flexible working policies rather than sticking to rigid rules where employees are forced to come into office daily. Often supervisors do not let their employees work from home as they are not sure of how much effort they are putting in. Managers tend to complain about a lack of transparency when workers work remotely. In such cases, it is important to outline work responsibilities and deadlines. If the work is completed by the stipulated deadline then there should be no reason to monitor people and check if they are working for a certain number of hours. Moreover, in today’s world there is a wide array of technological tools which allow remote teams to constantly stay in touch.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that remote working isn’t meant to be an alternative to women going to office. Usually, women find it more difficult to go back to work if they have undergone a long break. However, if in case a woman is permitted to work remotely during such times, then often the need for a long break is minimized and this makes it easier for a woman to return to the workforce. Inflexible working environments compel a woman to leave her job during difficult phases. If companies had more flexible policies and could support women during such transitory phases, then there may be no need for a woman to drop out of the workforce at all.
India’s low LFPR can be reversed if policies are made more favourable for women. Along with policies, mindset of the citizens need to change. As the world progresses, it’s important to not only talk about digital technologies but also embrace them to make change happen.
Karabi Mitra is a Consultant at Accenture Strategy
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