Why women need to work
Affluence has led to many women choosing not to work, with adverse outcomes.
Airports look like bus stations. Celebrations are grand. People own several gadgets at once. All trends that point to the fact that most Indian families are better off than they were even a generation earlier. The single biggest achievement of the liberalisation of the economy has been a higher standard of living for many households. Statistics bear out that claim.
The phenomenon of adequate income in the household to meet most expenses and manage some savings, has led to one noticeable change—more women are choosing not go to work, if they can afford to. Afford is the operative word to focus on this week.
While young women’s participation in the workforce has risen significantly over time, married women are increasingly falling off the employment curve, in what is seen as a burdensome responsibility of managing home, children and work. This is not a new burden. Many women who went to work in the earlier generations struggled through these problems. They also lived in more traditional households and did not compromise on their role at home for work. They struggled with the lack of reliable day care, limited transport facilities, and fewer choices to eat out and spend on help as the current generation of working women are able to do.
Which is why I see this trend as one triggered by economic prosperity. Women of the earlier generations did not give themselves a choice—the income they earned was important for the family. If they chose to remain at home, it meant compromising not just on one’s lifestyle, but also on money available for higher education of children, healthcare for the family, care of the elderly and retirement security for the couple.
As incomes increased, many women were able to step back and reassess the need to kill themselves trying to manage home and work. The security of adequate income and accumulated assets led many to look at work as a choice, not as a mandatory requirement. This led to at least two divergent outcomes.
The first was the increase in meaningful choices, both for the household and society. Women now choose a break in their career after having a child. Earlier, those working in a PSU could get a a year’s leave without pay after maternity leave. Those in the private sector risked losing their jobs. It is now common for women to come back to find a new job, or acquire skills to begin something that fits with their new circumstance.
Women work from home, taking on jobs that do not require a commute. They choose jobs that pay them by the hour. They take on entrepreneurship to control their work hours, place and nature of work. There is choice, and that is welcome. There is evidence to show that some well qualified women, who could otherwise earn and contribute to their household and to the economy, now choose to pursue other interests in volunteering and social entrepreneurship.
What is the adverse outcome? The woman who is not working outside her home is increasingly seen with greater envy by the one who continues to work and run a home. The stay at home mother appears at the PTA, groomed to the last painted toe, armed with all the information about every activity in the school, and flaunts her influence with teachers and staff, having volunteered at school. The employed woman can’t match this. At social events, holidays, reunions, and such, the woman with time on her hand is the one who is more fashionable, knows much more relevant information, holds diverse conversations, and is better networked. Not always, but mostly. My friends who work know what I am talking about.
The point I am making is it has now become somewhat fashionable to not go to work. The woman who is not pursuing a career has through various social signals, established that she is living a better life. There is no sulking or inferiority complex, but a flaunting of adequacy of income, assets and wealth, that she is in a place where she does not have to push herself.
Women who earn an income now assert their position as skilled workers who set their own terms. This is true for my help who says she only cooks for a few hours each day; for the young girl who works just weekends to offer pedicures with a stylish kit; for the yoga teacher who will not take calls beyond 10am; and the aura reader who can be seen only with prior appointment.
The demonstration effect of this preference has created a new set of problems. There are households that fall short of income as the children grow older and begin to pursue expensive interests, sports and activities. There are households that have fallen into expensive lifestyle habits that lead to debt and liquidity crises. However, nothing is done to augment the income, as the woman is unwilling to go to work. Economic necessity is no longer the incentive, unless it is really dire.
It has now become fashionable in some women’s circles to not be a slave to the job that requires compromise, commute and hardship. There was a generation of women that cringed at the lack of economic independence, and asking the husband for money was unthinkable. There are still women who believe that formal employment offers significant advantages over part-time pursuits and entrepreneurship. But we no longer find apologetic housewives on the other side of the spectrum. That space now has flexi moms. But it also has those who live in denial of their household finances.
We are not doing enough to make it easy for women in the workforce, but that is not the conversation this week. Whether a woman should work and earn seems to have slipped from being a question of economic necessity, into a quagmire of status and entitlement. That is a personal finance nightmare for households with consistently increasing need for money.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning.)