The fast lane: Wife, mother, working woman

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Jul 7 2014, 03:28am hrs
There was a surreality in reading last Thursdays newspapers. One lead story was on Facebooks chief operating officer Sheryl Sandburg and her visit to India where she had representatives of the Ficci ladies organisation, formidable businesswomen, falling at her well-shod feet. The pink papers front-paged a story on the succession plan at the R4,000-crore Apollo Hospitals involving four women, with Preetha Reddy and Shobhana Kamineni as front-runners. The same newspapers carried a subtext; Sandburg admitted that women in high places suffer from a tyranny of low expectations. And at another event in Aspen, Indira Nooyi, routinely bracketed among the worlds most powerful women, acknowledged that it was difficult to maintain a work-life balance. We pretend we have it all. ..every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. But if you ask our daughters, Im not sure they will say that Ive been a good mom.

It could be her Indian background, but it did resonate with the latest Census data report front-paged on the same day. It said that nearly 160 million women in India, 88% of whom are of working age15 to 59 yearsremain at home doing household duties. These 16 crore are the Great Invisible Workforce, primarily involved in domestic work and rearing families. The large proportion of working age group women who are confined to their homes is partly because of social pressures, lack of education and economic policies that provide no opportunities to women. Either way, it is a shocking loss to the country, and the women themselves. Underusing women across the spectrum of human activity is obviously wasteful. Their cognitive powers are the same as men, but because they have different interests and styles, they make for more diverse and probably more innovative workplaces. In countries with an ageing population, the need for more women at work is a no-brainer.

Goldman Sachs estimates that if Japan could increase the female employment rate, the countrys labour force would expand by more than 8 millionand its GDP will grow by 15%. Thats significant for a struggling economy with an ageing population. Its probably why Prime Minister Shinzo Abes Abenomics includes Womanomics. According to the International Monetary Fund, if women worked at the same level as men in Egypt, the countrys GDP could grow by 34%. The United Arab Emirates would see a 12% boost. Germany and France, 4%. Even the US could see 5% more growth. Once again, the key issue is to do with home versus workplace. The Harvard Business Review conducted a survey of American women who had left work to have children; 93% of them wanted to return to work, but only 74% managed to do so and just 40% were able to return to full-time jobs. On the face of it, women have done all they possibly could to prep themselves. As college admissions start across India, the number of women visibly increase every year. There are a lot more women at work, in business and as professionals. The kind of jobs we see women in these days are in fast-growing areas like hospitality, private education, media, health and public relations where attrition rates are high.

As the new Census data shows, Indias invisible workforce is the problem. There are very few countriesIran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabiawhich perform worse than India when it comes to womens participation in the workforce. Even Somalia, Bahrain and Malaysia do better. Among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), comparable emerging economies, India has the lowest female participation rate, with only 29% of women over the age of 15 working. Among the MINT countriesMexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkeyonly Turkey has the same participation rate as India. Half the working population in India is employed by the agricultural sector, but agricultures contribution to Indian economy has been steadily falling. This should have corresponded with rapid growth in numbers of working women in cities, but that hasnt happened.

Although women now have children later and in smaller numbers, they often start thinking about having a family just at the time when their careers are at a crucial stage. Women who take time out to start a family, find it very hard to catch up. What can be done to change all this The short answer: governments. Governments can help in a variety of ways: by legislating for reasonable maternity and paternity leave; by adjusting existing laws to allow both parents to have paid jobs; and legislate to close the gap between men and women at the top of companies. Norway has a 40% quota for women on the boards of all state-owned companies. Spain has set a mandatory 40% target for female directors of large companies by 2015 and France by 2017. Admittedly, quotas smack of tokenism and unfair competition, but the usual objection that quotas will encourage some women who are not very qualified generally ignores the fact that boards also contain lots of men who are in the same bracket. The transformation of womens lives has been one of the great changes in history, but we are still struggling to come to terms with women as mothers, wives and working women.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express