It is vital that mothers who desire to have a career post-childbirth feel supported rather than judged and exhausted, with or without the pandemic
Now I understand why working mothers leave their jobs”, said my friend, who has a son, over a phone call from India. She was one of my closest friends growing up and I was talking to her after more than half a decade. She used to be a very ambitious girl and naturally, I was rather taken aback by her statement. “What happened? How did your views change?”, I asked, to which she replied, “Well, isn’t it obvious, a baby happened followed by the pandemic.” Due to the pandemic, Aakriti (name changed) had been working from home for the last three months, while home-schooling her four-year-old son and performing additional domestic chores. Her husband, on the other hand, is both ill-equipped for and disinterested in performing domestic chores.
Even before the outbreak, women in India constituted an immensely small portion of the labour force and the pandemic is all set to widen this gap. A 2019 World Bank report revealed that only 21 per cent of the female population in India is a part of the labour force, compared to 83 per cent in Nepal, 60 per cent in China and 36 per cent in Bangladesh. And while many reasons exist for the abysmal representation of Indian women within the workforce, scholars have talked at length about how motherhood pushes scores of women unwillingly out of the workforce. Growing up in India, I came across various instances during social gatherings and even scholarly meetings where both men and women deemed this as a “natural” and “an unfortunate but inescapable” consequence of the choice to have a child.
However, it is not motherhood but rather the unequal division of labour inside the home after becoming a mother that pushes women out of the workforce. Post-childbirth, men can perform all the acts linked with child-rearing (cooking, cleaning, washing and so on) except breastfeeding, but are typically not conditioned to do so. According to a report released by OECD (Organisation for Economic Corporation and Development) in 2018, Indian women spend an average of five hours and 51 minutes daily on “unpaid” domestic work, the second-highest among the 31 countries surveyed. Indian men, on the other hand, spend an average of a measly 45 minutes daily and ranked among the bottom three countries in the table. Given the average Indian male’s distaste towards performing domestic duties, women are shouldering the majority of household responsibilities during the pandemic. An online petition started by Subarna Ghosh (a working mother from Mumbai) urges Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “talk to Indian men about doing an equal share of care work within the household” in his next speech. The petition, which draws attention towards how the nationwide lockdown has forced families to confront the issue of unpaid care work done by women, has already gained 71,000 signatures. A 2018 report by Ashoka University, titled Predicament of Returning Mothers, revealed that after becoming mothers, 50 per cent of women in the corporate, media and development sectors leave their jobs before the age of 30 and only 16 per cent of senior leadership roles in these sectors are held by women. The report goes on to state that the pressure to play multiple roles of the “homemaker, mother and employee” post-childbirth often pushes even the most resolute of women out of the workforce.
The exodus of talented and intelligent women out of the workforce is catastrophic for both the individual and society and ought to be stopped. And the first step towards this direction is challenging the “gendered” division of household labour across Indian households. The real reason men do not perform household chores is that it is “unpaid” work. The fact that most of the famous Indian chefs are men proves that when paid for the same work, men do it just as well or even better than women. As a result, when raising young boys, parents should ensure that they, too, perform domestic chores instead of considering it a “woman’s job.” Second, India’s inability to introduce an effective system of day care within the workplace, when coupled with the harsh judgment meted out to women (not men) who put their children in day care centres, has disastrous consequences for working mothers. And while the Indian Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 makes the creche facility mandatory in an establishment with at least 50 employees, it is rarely implemented. In the few cases where it is implemented, there is little to no quality assurance which dissuades parents from making use of it.
As the Indian economy is gradually reopening and the threat of the virus continues to loom large, the lack of good-quality day care centres is being felt even more acutely by working mothers. It is important that mothers who desire to have a career post-childbirth feel supported and encouraged rather than judged and exhausted, with or without the pandemic. Challenging the gendered division of household labour and providing good quality day care services within the workplace are two of the most effective ways to do that. And while the task is challenging, it is not impossible. Little steps taken by parents while raising their children and financial investment by organisations in setting up effective day care centres can go a long way in ensuring that society is not deprived of the contributions by half of its population.
(The writer is an educator and PhD scholar in Gender and Education from the University of Maryland)