For women’s incomes, flexible work is no magic bullet

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement came against the backdrop of poor presence of women in the workforce. Photo: ANI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement came against the backdrop of poor presence of women in the workforce. Photo: ANI


  • PM Modi's call for flexible work hours for women may be an overly simplistic solution to a complex problem.

As India reimagines its growth trajectory for the next 25 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a call for putting “women power" to good use by adopting flexible work policies. The statement came against the backdrop of poor presence of women in the workforce and the growing demand for flexible workplaces. However, experts say this is an overly simplistic solution to a complex gender imbalance, which could even end up reinforcing traditional gender roles.

First, let us decode where women stand in the workforce. Female labour force participation in India was nearly 30% in the early 1990s (already dismal by global standards), saw an increase to 32% between by 2005, before seeing a dramatic and sustained fall to below 20% now, according to World Bank data. Globally, too, there has been a decline, but marginal.

India’s case is rather puzzling. Researchers have pointed out positive trends, too, as reasons: better education for girls has not been met with adequate job creation and higher family incomes led to women dropping out from the workforce as they continued to take on the burden of unpaid and unmeasured household work and caregiving.

A significant share of women usually engaged in domestic duties had “reported their willingness to accept work" if made available at their premises, noted a paper published by the International Labour Organization in 2010. With the mainstreaming of remote work, demand for flexibility has increased, with more than 80% women favouring such measures in a LinkedIn survey this year. However, only about a fourth were offered such terms.


Women do seek flexible, hybrid work policies, but very few get it
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Women do seek flexible, hybrid work policies, but very few get it

Unintended consequences

Even as women (unsuccessfully) seek flexibility, one must realize that such well-meaning workplace policies would also have unintended consequences, ranging from burn-out, slowdown of career progression, and gender biases. A 2016 study based on flexible work policy in Germany published in European Sociological Review showed that men and women who had full-time jobs with flexible schedules worked the same amount of overtime hours but men made an average of €1,000 more per year. Several researchers have noted that employers tend to perceive flexibility from the stereotypical lens, which is that women use it to tend to family-friendly activities, while men use it to increase efficiency and productivity. A recent survey by Deloitte shed light on some of the issues, with women who changed their working hours during the pandemic seeing more burn-outs and stress levels and feeling less optimistic about their career prospects such as promotions.

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But flexible policies come with thier consequences
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But flexible policies come with thier consequences

Unpaid & unaccounted for

As India seeks to harness “women power", it must be noted that the economic progress, internationally measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), has actually been ignoring “women power". “We should remember that we would have no GDP if it were not for the unpaid care work that women perform to feed and nurture our families," said Shrayana Bhattacharya, economist and author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh. The data clearly shows that with a similar amount of time spent on learning, women end up investing more time in unpaid household work and caregiving, which allow men to give more time to employment and related activities.

“The past 30 years have shown us that India can grow economically without women being able to share in the economic gains. However, an aim to become an advanced country must honour and treat male and female aspirations equally," Bhattacharya said.

Reinforcing stereotypes

The economic gains made by India could multiply if women find a conducive social environment to join in. Studies before the pandemic showed India could almost double its GDP in a decade with gender parity in the workforce. However, while India performs better in terms of political representation and education, it falls in the bottom five in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index.

Gender Parity
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Gender Parity

Moreover, a flexible work policy rooted in traditional gender roles won’t fit the bill. “A lack of separation between workplace and home would again lead to women being largely responsible for household and caregiving work," said feminist economist Mitali Nikore. “This will also lead to decline in women’s presence in public spaces and reversal in gains made in terms of freedom of mobility."

Increasing women’s workforce participation in the long run hinges more on change in social attitudes and progressive policy inputs framed through a careful gender lens.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Kaushik Basu writes on the US Fed’s error of misreading the labour market. Montek S. Ahluwalia & Utkarsh Patel say India needs a 10-year plan on the strategy for managing climate change. Biju Dominic on how employers could persuade employees back to office. Long Story narrates the existential crisis of a premier PSU.

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