While the customary role of women was limited to the domestic front, 21st-century Indian women have made significant strides in the workplace. Today, almost 25% of Indian women are employed. As per the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, India has ranked 140 among 156 countries.
The hardship of women in every stage of life is difficult to categorise, but the 21st-century working woman isn’t treated equally as men. Unfortunately, unequal pay, gender bias, mental and sexual harassment are some of the issues haunting working-class women and holding them back from participating in the workforce.
With the growing concern around discrimination against women in the workplace, it is important to understand the nexus between class and gender inequality in India. More importantly, what are intersectionality and identity politics themes and how do they concern working-class women?
In the last two decades, women have organised against the routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the leverage of shared experiences, women have recognised the collective political demands that resonate more than isolated voices. This politicisation has structured the way we understand inequality against women.
For example, rape in the workplace was once seen as a private matter, but now, it is largely recognised as a part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class. This process of recognising “personal” matters as a systematic violation of human rights has led to the birth of intersectionality and identity politics.
Coined by social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, Intersectionality is a foundation for profiling a group of people as affected by a myriad of discriminations. It takes into account the overlapping identities and experiences of people to understand the intricacy of biases they face. Identity politics explains a wide variety of political activity grounded in the shared experiences of bigotry of members of certain social groups.
The intersectionality and identity politics theory asserts that people are discriminated against on multiple sources like race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Black feminists like Patricia Hill Collins have supported this view.
Therefore, when we argue about the nexus of class and gender inequality encountered by working women in India, it is an argument founded on the pretext of intersectionality.
The financial demands on middle-class Indian families are increasing every day. The cost of living and related expenses are sky-rocketing. This has forced every family to look for alternate means of increasing their household income. As a result, middle-class women who were once homemakers have to step out of the house and take up jobs.
Positively, women have become a conspicuous part of India’s economic progress. However, that doesn’t stop gender bias in the workplace. In light of prejudices, qualified women do not have the same opportunities as men. In some cases, even when a qualified woman is available for a job, the preference is given to a male candidate.
According to a LinkedIn Opportunity Index, as many as 85% of women miss out on a raise or a promotion because of their gender. Even in historically female-dominated fields, one can find that men earn higher pay and occupy more prestigious designations. Around 37% of Indian women get paid less than men in the same placement. This results in working-class women being socially and economically deprived.
This kind of gender bias also persists in the unorganised sector. Women labourers don’t get paid the same wages for the same nature of work as men. They are forced to work in miserable conditions and are exploited.
Women are sexually harassed in the workplace almost daily. About 85% of women aged 24–40 years have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.
Citing a popular incident, in 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a government social worker from Rajasthan, was gang-raped by higher-caste men annoyed by her efforts to prevent child marriage in her village. However, justice eluded Bhanwari Devi as her employer denied responsibility claiming she had been attacked in her field.
This case initiated the Supreme Court to introduce the Vishakha Guidelines in 1997 that mandate employers to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace. According to the Vishakha Guidelines, “Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognised basic human right.”
In 2013, India ratified the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act to protect employers in organised and unorganised sectors. Both these acts were a ground-breaking legislative step for India to protect its female workers, but this only exists in writing.
Women in the workplace (especially those in the unorganised sector) don’t even recognise that they have been sexually assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace has become so normalised that women simply accept it and don’t bother to file a complaint.
As evident, the nexus between class and gender inequality is built into the DNA of the Indian workforce. Working-class women in India face gender discrimination at the workplace just by virtue of them being females. Besides, gender discrimination has become so rampant that no one bats an eye.
So, what can the authorities do to enact reforms that protect women in the workplace? Here are a few suggestions: