The share of women in the workforce has been steadily declining for more than a decade now in India. It is a curious thing to happen since the number of girls receiving education, even post-secondary and postgraduate education has been on the rise. Even so, the World Bank ranks India 120th out of 131 countries ranked for female participation in the workforce. The percentage of women in the workforce has reduced from 36% in 2005-06 to 24% in 2015-16. Simply said, there were more women in the workforce a decade ago than there are now. So what is the reason behind this strange occurrence?
The reducing rates of women in the workforce are a result of a variety of factors. In a country where unemployment is climbing at alarming levels, there are far fewer opportunities for women than there are for men. Sectors such as agriculture, that traditionally employed women have been on the decline. On the other hand; manufacturing, service and IT sectors are not generating as many jobs as are required. At the same time, there have been cuts in hiring numbers due to automation and the little hiring that is taking place is biased in favour of men. In such a situation, where the job growth is non-existent, it seems as though unemployment is affecting women more than it is affecting men.
However, rising unemployment alone cannot be blamed entirely for the reducing numbers of working women. The issue is quite complex. The problem in India is that the majority of Indians view child-rearing and household chores to be the sole responsibility of women. In such a scenario, there is tremendous pressure on women to give up on their careers and devote their time to nurturing children, looking after ageing parents and the household in general. The common point of view is that if the husband is earning enough to sustain the family, then why is there a need for the woman to work? That is to say, a woman’s career isn’t given as much importance as a man’s career.
This problem has intensified in the past decade. Since the average income of the middle-class has been on the rise, the necessity of the woman to go out and earn a living has reduced. The trend seems to point out the fact that women opt for employment only when absolutely necessary. The same is, however, not true when it comes to women belonging to the lower classes. Here, they have no option but to work. And hence, the majority of the workforce is made up of women belonging to the lower class. These women work as domestic workers, labourers on construction sites, clean up crew (hired by municipalities and building societies to collect waste and to work as sweepers). In other words, most of these women end up working in the informal sector. This also means that these are the women for whom most of the benefits (that women working in the private sector can avail) remain out of reach.
In such a scenario, our leaders have introduced bills in the parliament that could help to keep women from leaving the workforce. The Maternity Benefits Act allows women to take six months of paid maternity leave upon the birth of their child. The Act in itself is very progressive and it helps shape the working culture to suit women. However, it made no provisions for paternity leave and places the burden of bearing the cost entirely on the employer. Such legislature could easily backfire and put the jobs of lakhs of women in jeopardy since employers can start viewing hiring women as cost prohibitive. Mandating paid paternity leaves thus becomes necessary to balance the hiring scales.
Keeping this in mind, Rajeev Satav, MP from Maharashtra, has introduced a Private Member’s Paternity Benefits Bill in the Parliament last year. (For those amongst us who are unaware of the concept, a private member’s bill is a bill that is introduced by a member of the Parliament who is not a Minister). “In the History of Indian Parliament, only 14 Private Members Bills have become a reality. The intent of bringing a Private Members Bill on Paternity Bill is to initiate a debate & mobilize support for providing a statutory backing to Paternity Leave in India. An example of using Private Members Bill to bring about reforms is the Bill on Transgender Rights that was passed by Rajya Sabha,” says Mr Pravir Srivastava, a close aide to parliamentarian Satav.
But the larger question is, are women leaving the workforce solely because of the unavailability of parental leaves? It must be understood that keeping women in the workforce is more complicated than just providing parental leaves. The working environment has been built to suit the needs of men alone. For women, holding on to a job presents a myriad of challenges. Poor working conditions, sexual harassment, unsafe streets, burden to look after the family, very few career opportunities, discrimination, poor quality of jobs, unavailability of part-time work, lack of access to property and finances, unavailability of jobs closer to home, gender pay gap, lower age of marriage, unavailability of crèches are merely a few of them. More has to be done if we are serious about wanting women to join the workforce. And just introducing maternity and paternity leaves is not going to cut it. Besides, women’s problems are different based on which class they belong to, what kind of jobs they do and the sectors that employ them. A household maid who is probably earning less than a minimum amount required to survive in a city like Mumbai has no way of availing the benefits of the maternity or the paternity act. The only way the bills will make any real difference is when it will be possible for her to avail such benefits. And that is the challenge that the bill needs to answer – how will the benefits of the bills be transferred to the informal sector where most of the women are employed?
Clearly, a much more holistic approach needs to be adopted to solve such a complex issue. It is not entirely certain how far the bill would help keep the female workforce participation from tumbling further than it already has. The causes that lower women’s participation in the workforce and varied and solving this problem requires a comprehensive gender-specific approach. If India wants a higher workforce participation from women, it needs to do more than just pass bills assuring maternity and paternity bills. By failing to allow women access to the job market, India is losing out on an exceptional amount of talent that could be put to use. There is no denying the fact that India would be a richer country if her women were allowed to work. By not ensuring women’s participation, all the efforts and resources that India is putting in educating these very women are wasted.
That being said, passing the paternity benefits bill is definitely a step in the right direction. Having the father share equally in the child’s rearing responsibilities would go a long way in reducing the number of women who are compelled to leave the workforce to take care of a newborn child. It will also help reduce the discrimination that women face during the hiring processes. But getting the bill passed may not be easy. “The Bill has received a positive response from my fellow parliamentarians and people from different parts of the country. The tenure of the current Parliament will end in less than 9 months & therefore the chances of the bill being passed is low. But, the government should adopt this bill & introduce it in the house. It is important for the civil society & members of the ruling dispensation to wholeheartedly support this bill,” says Mr Srivastava.
It is indeed important that the civil society play its part and pressurize the government to pass this bill. Change is a tediously incremental process and this bill represents one tiny step that will help create a long sturdy ladder towards true emancipation and empowerment for the country’s women.