A career and a personal life: Can modern, urban, women have it all?
Opinion

A career and a personal life: Can modern, urban, women have it all?

The debate on whether women can have it all keeps coming up. Recently it is being asked in connection with Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Author of the book Lean In, she wrote and spoke about how women can have it all – from successful careers, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields to fulfilling personal lives. However, in the light of recent Facebook scandal on how Facebook leadership, Sandberg included, worked to minimize findings on how Russians interfered with American presidential elections, her role as a feminist icon is being questioned.

This is just as well. The global MeToo movement has started questioning the major tech giants. Recently Google employees across the world stopped work at local time as part of planned protests against Google’s poor handling of sexual harassment complaints. It must be noted that last year Uber had come under fire for numerous instances of sexual harassment at work place leading to several firings and lawsuits.

The MeToo movement recently captured the discourse in India when many women, especially from journalism came together to name and hold accountable abusers and harassers in their workplace, who were often powerful, influential men of the industry. As more stories came to light, from every professional field – Bollywood to corporate – the pervasiveness of the issue became clear. It must be noted that a similar speaking up by women in academia preceded this movement – Raya Sarkar’s list named and shamed such abusers evoking mixed reactions even from the feminist movement.

These conversations have brought forth what women have always known – that workplaces are often toxic and this can range from sexist jokes in the office to actual sexual assaults. Thus women who work not only have to contend with larger misogyny, discriminatory practices, being paid less and being condescended to, but also constantly face or ward off unwelcome sexual advances that can even force them to quit their jobs and leave them with lifelong scars. The complaints system or guidelines are either non-existent or mainly dealt in an equally insensitive and even complicit culture.

So can women have it all? Perhaps this is a trick question – for in reality no one can really have it all – no matter how narrowly all is defined. However, women are particularly struggling with work-life balance. The first discrimination they face in the job market is at an entry level itself. Secondly, they are paid much less for the same work as men – the gender pay gap– and this is a global phenomenon. In India not only are women paid less, but they are also more likely to find only informal work with little protection.

After that women continue to face discrimination at work, often passed in favour of men for more lucrative projects to an extent that if we analyse the top leadership positions it is estimated that men named “John” outnumber all women in positions of power across multiple fields. As of the 2018 Fortune list, only 24 women (4.8%) were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There are only 27.6% women judges in lower courts across India. Indian women in parliament and state assemblies represent just 10% of the total.

Nationally, both National Family Health Survey-4 and National Sample Survey Office show that there has been a dramatic decline in women labour force participation. The World Bank estimates that it has fallen from 35.1% in 1990 to 27.2% in 2017.  This fares poorly for the economy – the Economist estimates that Were India to rebalance its workforce, the world’s biggest democracy would be 27% richer. But this also fares poorly for a nation whose ostensible goal is women empowerment. Indeed part of the reason that women stay out of work, despite requisite qualification, is familial and societal pressure. Many who are working are forced to drop out after marriage and especially after children.

The primary responsibility of home and child rearing continues to be on the women. While maternity leave has been increased, it continues to be inadequate in the absence of quality and affordable child-care options. Paternity leave in India is almost unheard of. In most cases house management and childcare is transferred to another extremely underpaid and exploited section of poor women – the maids, cooks, and nannies. Also this support is only available to those women who have some minimum extra income to spend on such help. Most importantly these informal workers have little protection and are forced to work for long hours. Their work is unregulated and often they are abused.

In such scenarios, women are often foregoing marriage/partnerships and children. In fact it has been argued that one of the worst career moves women can make is to have children. This is opposite for men – men with children are more likely to be hired and paid more. This phenomenon is termed as ‘the motherhood penalty vs the fatherhood bonus’. It is mainly because of prevailing and insidious perception of regarding women as primary caregivers and men as primary breadwinners.

Even in scenarios that women do manage to find good work and childcare options, men continue to have more leisure time after work. Fathers have started pitching in household work but not enough. This primarily continues to be woman’s responsibility, often called ‘invisible work’ or ‘mental load’ and is rarely talked about. This means that women spend a lot of time doing unpaid labour. This is especially true for India where women spend as many as 5 hours and 52 minutes on unpaid work. This is higher than countries like UK, USA, Japan, France, Australia and Canada. Also Indian men spend some of the lowest time engaged in unpaid work making the ratio between men and women one of the worst in the world.

The remedial measures are quite apparent – better and safer working environment, better parental leave and childcare, legal guidelines and their effective enforcement for countering harassment and discrimination, a recognition of women’s unpaid work and larger conversations on pervasiveness of patriarchy at home and work. Also a recognition, respect, and acceptance of women’s choice to stay at home or alternately to opt out of marriage/children altogether are imperative.

Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit organisation. She has a PhD in Public Health and Policy from University of London and MPhil in Development Studies from University of Oxford. She tweets at @SwatiSaxena1231

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