Even after five decades of feminism and female participation in the productive economy, the problem of women falling off the organised workforce remains a global phenomenon

Former Lehman Brothers Chief Financial Officer Erin Callan recently urged women not to work too hard at their professions. Her comments in The New York Times about the dangers of losing the work-life balance came on the eve of the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, a volume that exhorts women to push harder in order to advance in business. What these conflicting voices bring to the fore is that women’s participation in productive work out of home continues to be an “issue” despite decades of global feminism. We in India have recently learnt through the International Labour Force that the percentage of women in the organised workforce in the country has been steadily declining in the past few years, so that while in 2004-05 women formed 37 per cent of the working population, they now make up only 29 per cent.

At the workplace

In order for a woman to be able to hold down a job, it is essential that her employer provides her with certain amenities and conveniences needed to balance the demands on her made by her domestic duties on the one hand and those of the job on the other. As we know, workspaces in India do not provide all such facilities or provide them adequately. The result is that married women with households and young children to care for often quit jobs in order to focus exclusively on domesticity. While it is imperative on us as a society to ensure that working women are given the facilities they need at their workplaces, it is also essential to probe the issue at a deeper level. Whatever the practical modalities, the problem of women falling off the organised workforce is ultimately a function of the gendered division of labour basic to patriarchal societies, a feature that continues globally in varying degrees despite women’s participation in the productive economy.

As professor of anthropology Sherry B. Ortner and the late historian Gerda Lerner point out, the hierarchical home and the world divide — the public/private schism — have always been a feature of human societies, the valued “public” realm being the sphere of men while women remained in the unvalued “private” world of domesticity. In modern times, as women in industrialised democracies started to engage in productive activities out of the domestic space, their participation in the public realms of society began slowly to be accepted. But, although, the “public” became open to the woman, the “private” still remained chiefly, even completely, her responsibility. Five decades of feminism have achieved much in its fight to secure women’s rights. However, in the question of men’s participation in housework and childcare, there has been little progress. This is largely true not only for developing countries like India where men still find it demeaning to do “women’s work,” but for the developed Western economies as well. As feminist and author Gloria Steinem observed in an interview to The Telegraph “. . . in neither country (the U.S. or India) have we solved the problem of women having two jobs — one inside the home and one out. . . . We’ve had the courage to raise our daughters more like our sons, but not to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Differences in cultures

This “unfinished gender revolution,” as Steinem put it, influences women differently in different cultures. The Population Association of America Summit 2012 focused on the issue of dwindling Caucasian birth rates in the western world. It was observed that faced with a demanding juggle between domestic duties, particularly motherhood, and a career, women in the developed economies are increasingly choosing to forego motherhood. In countries like India, where the institution of marriage is still very strong and women’s choices are much less free — where even women themselves internalise the belief that their fulfilment consists in domesticity and motherhood — the reverse happens. Rather than suffer the exhausting tussle between the home and the world, and be continually ravaged by guilt at the perception of being “imperfect” wives and mothers, women here give up on careers/jobs altogether.

Sharing duties

Recently, the Ministry of Women and Child Development came up with a proposal to evaluate women’s contribution to the domestic sphere in economic terms. The merits and demerits of the suggestion are a live debate. What is undeniable is the need to enhance the societal perception of domestic duties so that men can be induced to share in them. Women need themselves to come out of stereotypical notions of feminine duty and demand that their spouses share the burden of domesticity. And, as a society, we need to stop romanticising the woman’s sacrifices or glorifying her crazed attempts to do it all by calling her a “superwoman.”

“Post feminism” — women’s supposedly free abandonment of the fight to secure gender equality in favour of a “celebration” of traditional womanhood — has always been a patriarchal ploy to keep women powerless in the face of feminism’s gains. In the developed economies, women have begun to see it for what is and it is time we see through the oppressive myths around womanhood generated by our own culture. Women despair of pursuing work lives in trying to live up to these mythical standards. And, in the interest of future generations, it is necessary also that we start “raising our sons more like our daughters” so that the latter, when they grow up, do not have to carry the cross we do.

(Suparna Banerjee is the author of Science, Gender and History: Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood – forthcoming.)

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