6 Things We Need To Change To Make Workplaces Truly Gender-Equal

Posted by Nitya Sriram in #FutureOfWork
March 3, 2017
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A growing concern in the Indian economy is that women’s participation in the workforce has seen a significant decline in the last decade. The issue has cleaved its way into many conversations among policy makers, and given the statistics, there’s no doubt that coming up with solutions is top priority.

To take the conversation forward, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in collaboration with FESDIG (Feminist Economist Saturday Discussion Group), hosted an event on 1 March 2017, ‘Women at Work in Asia: Lessons for India’s Low Female Labour Force Participation’. Held to lead up to International Women’s Day 2017 (8 March), the event featured insightful presentations and panel discussions. Leading academics, policy makers and economic experts, including M. Sathiyavathy, Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, and Dr Sher Verick, Deputy Director of the ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia and Country Office for India, among others, were present.

The second-half of the event also saw the launch and discussion of Dr Verick’s book ‘Transformation of Women at Work in Asia: An Unfinished Development Agenda’, followed by a special address by Harinder Sidhu, Australian High Commissioner to India.

With so many experts speaking on the subject, we took away a number of important lessons from the event, about what needs changing to increase women’s participation in the workforce in India. For those who missed it, here are the 6 most important takeaways from the event:

1. Gender Equality In Society, If We Want Equality At Work

A recurring argument among various speakers was that achieving gender parity in India’s labour force was a second step. First and foremost, there is a need to push for equal treatment of men and women in the society, beginning at home.

M. Sathiyavathi of the Labour Ministry observed: “I’ve visited rural houses where I’ve seen girls getting lesser nutrition than boys.” Unless women are healthy, and have equal access to resources such as education and vocational training, how can we hope to improve their workforce participation?

Preet Rustagi, from the Institute for Human Development (IHD), was of the same view.
Through her talk she explained how attaching lower value to women in the society, automatically results in lower investment in women’s education and training, which in turn means that women have access to jobs with lower pay, or sometimes end up doing unpaid work.

As Harinder Sidhu concisely put it, “Achieving gender equality at work will only be possible by achieving gender equality in society.”

2. Women Want To Work, But Don’t Have Opportunities

Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, began his talk with an important observation. In India, there’s a pressing need for creating more job opportunities that women can access. According to him, many women across the country remain unemployed simply because they don’t have access to suitable work. He said, “If all Indian women who want to work had opportunity, there’d be a 21% increase in female labour participation!”

3. Fix The Glaring Wage Gap!

The drop in women’s workforce participation is also largely because of the fact that many salaried women still face gender discrimination at the workplace, which causes quick loss of interest in the job itself and pushes them to quit.

Said M. Sathiyavathy, “On field, women are paid less. 20%-40% disparity.” Further, lack of proper maternity leave benefits and the need for policies including paternity leave, too, were discussed in the event. After all, in many cases, women who attain motherhood do not get hired into organisations, or aren’t promoted to senior managerial roles.

The government has already begun taking significant steps towards making workplaces more women-friendly. “Maternity leave which was 12 weeks, will now be 26 weeks, and will soon be implemented in private sector,” said M. Sathiyavathy.

This is a good first step, no doubt, but there are still many other workplace policies such as sexual harassment policies that need to be enforced both, in public and private sectors.

4. Household Work Is Not Considered Real ‘Work’

In a lot of households, given the gender disparity, women are not considered likely candidates for “fast-paced” jobs, where they are required to work longer hours. Because of this, many women are not considered for higher roles and career growth stagnates. Juggling work at home and at offices means that women are prone to higher levels of stress, and end up dropping out of their jobs.

An important observation in this context was made by Preet Rustagi, “Household work isn’t counted as ‘work’, even though it is a regular, economic activity.”

Lack of recognition, both at home and at work, become contributing factors to quick burnout and loss of interest. Because of our cultural history, many women end up choosing home over work.

Said Harinder Kaur, “Cultural norms are sticky, and they continue to hamper equality in the workforce.”


5. Better Infrastructure Can Ensure More Women Have Easy Access To Workplaces

One observation during the discussion was that women in India prefer working at home (which largely remains unrecognised work), because of lack of supportive, safe infrastructure.

Said Professor Sonalde Desai, University of Maryland, “Availability of roads, and particularly, of buses, makes a big difference to women.”

A portion of Sher Verick’s research too, as elaborated in his book, was dedicated to this requirement. We need better housing, safe transportation facilities and increase in public expenditure in health and education, so more women, especially from marginalised and far-flung communities can join the workforce with greater ease.

6. Need For Proper Measurement Of Women’s Work

The most important lesson to take away from the event, was perhaps that documentation and reportage around women’s participation in the workforce is not comprehensive.

Said Harinder Sidhu, “Women are overrepresented in vulnerable jobs, underrepresented in leadership roles.”

This needs to change. Without accurate statistical representation of women in the workforce, it becomes doubly hard to formulate the right kind of policy changes for women’s empowerment in the workplace. And without these, it will be impossible to bring about gender parity in the workplace.