Women’s Day 2023 has passed. Like every year, lots of showpieces were organized. Big speeches were made for empowering women, both socially and economically. Advertisers jumped on the bandwagon to teach women what empowerment means in the truest sense’. Some claim empowerment lies in freedom from patriarchy.
Some claim empowerment lies in joining the workforce. Some claim empowerment lies in having the choice to wear whatever she wants. Others interpret it as feeling empowered to wear patriarchy-imposed clothes like the hijab. There is one common denominator in all of this. That is decisional autonomy. Make no mistake about it: decisional autonomy comes mainly from financial freedom.
So, are women free after half a century of feminism in India? Or has it only worsened for women, both on the personal and professional fronts? And if it is, what are the reasons behind it?
No company for women
According to the latest study by IBM and Chief, despite all the rhetoric, women in this generation are less likely to repeat the miracles of the previous generation. What I mean by it is that the chances that India will produce the next Indra Nooyi or Kiran Mazumdar Shaw are diminishing day by day.
Women have simply bailed out of corporations in the last few years. Previously, women made up 18-19% of middle management in 2019. The number has come down to 14–16 percent in 2023. The problem is worsened by the fact that only 39 percent of companies would prefer to promote these women to leadership roles. The global average is 45.
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This is just a part of the larger pattern. Let me ask you a question. When do you think was the right and safer time for women to join the workforce, 1990 or 2021? Of course, the answer will be 2021. We have a much more sincere and sensitive population when it comes to respecting women.
We have an empathetic workplace. Companies ideally prioritize hiring women. They have specific mechanisms in place for women’s security. Cabs are available for transportation. There are many more other facilities. Many states provide them with free bus rides. Result?
Contrary to expected trends, these measures have not resulted in increased female workforce participation. It has declined from 30 percent in 1990 to 19 percent in 2021. Compared to 32 percent in 2005, the decline is steeper.
That is a shocker. Wrong word. It is horror. The data is pretty clear on that front. India can add more than 26.4 crore women to the workforce. It could lead to a 27 percent increase in GDP, or, in plain words, Rs 70,000 crores.
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It’s puzzling to many. The lack of a wholesome explanation for this phenomenon causes activists to invent absurd reasons for it. On TV channels, they can easily be found blaming society, patriarchy, lack of laws, lack of women’s security, and even company policies. What they don’t talk about is how far society has come in ensuring women’s safety. Sure, problems are there, but the situation is far better. So, whose fault, is it?
It’s the fault of the structure on which pro-women activists are relying to ensure that women join the workforce. Knowingly or unknowingly, what they have done is inherited the same patriarchal structure that they bash all around, packed it up in a new form, and sold it to women, eventually becoming the new patriarchal head.
The allegation against patriarchy is that, under the guise of protecting women, it discriminates against them. Accepted. But what are our laws supposed to do to free them of this phenomenon? Nothing; they do the same. Article 15(3) of the Indian Constitution empowers states to make special laws and provisions for women and children. Unfortunately, the special provisions manifest in restricting women from joining the workforce.
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Are we patronizing women?
In March 2022, Trayas, an independent regulatory research and policy advisory organization, published a report titled State of Discrimination Report. It analyzed legal provisions with respect to women joining the workforce. Both central acts like the Factories Act and state-level acts were taken into consideration.
The report highlights that 5 of 6 union acts, namely the Factories Act and Rules, Shops and Establishment Act, Contract Labour Act and Rules, Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act and Rules, and Plantation Labour Act, prohibit women from working at night. The Factories Act outperformed all of them in overall restrictions. Apart from working at night, the act also restricts women from working in hazardous atmospheres. Taking into account both state-level laws and central ones, in Indian labor laws, a total of 650 provisions were found to be restricting women’s entry into the workforce.
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Less business sense and more coercion
Last year, a few changes were introduced. The government has proposed to amend Section 66 of the Factories Act to ensure that women are able to work between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Again, the solution to the problem sounds virtuous and easy. And that is exactly where the problem lies. There are imminent dangers for female travelers traveling around sunset and sunrise.
The onus of ensuring that nothing happens to these women would certainly lie on the management of the factory and company in which they are working. Surely, it makes sense for management to provide these facilities between work hours.
However, the problem arises when these women travel to work. Companies have to spend a bit extra on hiring security personnel and cabs. They may get ready to do that to sound virtuous, but ultimately it would lead to indirect discrimination against women. Spending on them brings a lower return on investment as compared to men, and no business would like that.
It would be much better if the authorities would take care of extra expenses. Because this amendment is not the only one that hurts a company’s finances. The Maternity Benefits Act provides for 26 weeks of paid maternity leave as well as one month of paid leave for illness caused by pregnancy or miscarriage. Earlier, it was only for 12 weeks. Once again, the problem is that the act lacks nuances.
It gives absolute rights to women without any corresponding responsibility. For a company to provide women with benefits, there has to be a quid pro quo. So, for instance, if the woman has worked for a company for years and has contributed significantly towards value creation, it is the moral responsibility of the company to provide her with these benefits.
However, if she has just joined a company and wants to take a leave, the company is legally bound to do that, but at the end of the day, management will feel only cheated. Then there is a new demand for paid menstrual leave. A petition in the Supreme Court was filed regarding that. The Honourable CJI rightly inferred that it would only lead to discrimination against women.
More demands are in the pipeline. These things are literally eroding the gains made by women. Studies after studies are being published, showcasing women as better leaders than men. Indian society has been able to respect this trait. In families, women have been equal decision-makers from time immemorial. In religious functions, women are more preferred over men. Somehow, we are just not able to make it easier for our women to take their place in the workforce.
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Coercion never works
The primary reason for this is to ape the western idea of pushing women into the workforce through coercion. It does not work in modern capitalist societies. At the end of the day, businesses run on profits. It is literally the definition of business. They are amoral, which means that businesses don’t consider the social definition of morality. If they benefit from it, businesses will spend billions of dollars to make such stuff acceptable in society.
Businesses will hire and promote women only when they benefit from it. They benefit from abortion more than motherhood, so they are promoting it more in recent times. That has not always been the case. Companies have been quite apprehensive of hiring western women in the past due to an excessive emphasis on the rights and privilege aspects of jobs rather than responsibility.
To avoid it in India, the drumbeat needs to slow down. It could slow down only when the government, businesses, and women themselves join hands. Responsible and upright women would have to step forward to balance rights and responsibilities. For instance, they could take women on board to make alternate arrangements like taking medication or working from home rather than taking absolute leave.
On their part, companies should ask the government what it needs to ensure equality at the workplace. They could ask the government to subsidize maternity leave and other kinds of privileges available to them purely for biological reasons.
Collaboration and vigorous deliberation are the needs of the hour. There are way too many advantages to miss out on. Integration of women in the workforce is beneficial for both the workforce and family. If women go to work, it will create a need for alienated old parents to rejoin their kids’ families as they will be required to take care of the child. It is already happening, but more needs to be done.
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