Some years ago, the vice-chancellor of the (then) Madras University had wondered aloud at a convocation function why our women gold medallists disappear from the workforce after they get married. Unlike their male counterparts, why do they suddenly quit good jobs in large numbers once they are married and never resurface?
We have been so preoccupied with the dropout rates among school students that an equally large dropout rate in our workforce for educated and skilled women has escaped our notice. If we look around, we will discover that, notwithstanding all those jokes and asides about the today’s power-hungry women grabbing jobs from men and fobbing off marriage, the number of highly skilled women workers who step off an upwardly mobile career path to become a home-maker remains alarmingly high. When it comes to choosing a career or taking care of families, the undeclared expectation is that it will not be the husband, but the wife who will quit the work platform. How many men have you heard of who suddenly dropped well-paid jobs to take care of their families? Very few. And how many women who have chucked up promising jobs after a brilliant start citing “personal” reasons? Countless.
Each year, merit lists in all categories feature girls in large numbers. The number of girls qualifying for the IITs or IIMS has also been steadily increasing. In the job market, job hunters find them full of promise and bosses, too, rate them high. But the male style competitive model that most workplaces have adopted demands an unbroken service track record from employees. Globalization and modern technologies, instead of making things easier for women, are also feeding extreme work patterns that force young married female workers to rethink priorities (read accept that her man must not be disturbed) and quit jobs just when their career is going somewhere. Most young women, who at this crucial point in their careers are also expected to take care of children or ailing parents (their own or their husbands’), find it impossible to cope with the triple burden of handling office work, motherhood and being a “good” wife.
The storyline for men still remains relatively traditional: A good compensation package with a high title ensures them a high place at the workplace and greater viability in the marriage market. For women, however, once they ponder marriage, the touchstones are still the good old looks and lineage. In fact, unlike men, being a high-salaried “power woman” may make women somewhat awesomely unapproachable in our kind of society. Those who scan matrimonial websites would know how many men want “ideal” wives such as Tulsi or Parvati from TV soap operas, who are self-effacing and family-centric.
Working outside the home has always been considered honourable for men. But women similarly employed are not usually viewed positively. Everything from rowdy children, sexually dysfunctional marriages to the rise in divorce rates is routinely traced to working mothers. To top it, reliable household help is getting increasingly rare and creches will babysit for restricted hours only. How far then can an average young working mother push herself? Even companies with family-friendly policies do not see the need to provide special flexi-hours or temporary jobs for their women workers at least during the years they are raising young families. The result is a massive exodus of young talent.
Now comes a Ficci research report saying that India is facing a severe shortage of skilled and trained workers in nearly every sector that is increasing in direct proportion to our burgeoning economy. So much so that the government, after raising the retirement age to 60, is now said to be considering raising it by another two years and universities are planning to raise the age of retirement for professors to 70 or thereabouts. Since campus expansion and skill training are both time-consuming and also money-intensive, is there another way out to meet the pressures of a fast-growing economy?
Yes there is. Make work flexible and coax the dissuaded women in middle years back into the workforce when their children have grown up. Women who had carefully weighed all the pros and cons, and taken a conscious decision to opt out of a demanding job would often be found willing to do with less once their children are older. Since these women who rejoin the workforce would still be sacrificing a lot while temping and accepting a smaller salary, they will naturally want to see what the job “means” to them. Is it something they really believe in? Remember, they may have been some of our most promising workers and highly trained hands when they first began and could still flower, as they gather skills and confidence, into excellent hands.
Obviously, for this our present-day workplace patterns will need to be refashioned. But the plus point will be that in time, this group will drive bigger changes all over and lead to trickle-down opportunities for women in lesser jobs. Of course, earning power matters for all women. But unlike men, these women in their 40s are no longer hung up on the power games or a certain title, or they’d have stayed on, never mind the cost. They are humane, set greater store by the quality of work they are doing and the product that they help shape or sell.
Access and opportunity may have improved vastly for women after three decades of feminist legislation, but what employers also need to focus on is how to help trained and skilled young women workers not step completely off the job track and try to retain or coax them back, even as temps. In the age of endemic shortages of manpower, no nation can afford such enormous and largely preventable female brain drain.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org