Technology Can Help Solve India’s Problem Retaining Women in the Workforce
In a central Mumbai skyscraper, a highly qualified group of women settled in at the building’s private clubhouse to share what had stopped them from working. One, a chartered accountant, had a supportive husband, but her in-laws disapproved of her returning to work after the birth of her first child. Another said, “Flexibility at the workplace is only in writing—nobody truly encourages it.” At one job interview, she was asked outright if she planned on having a second child. “There is a reason why there are more male CXOs in the world,” she shrugged.
A third — a former management consultant — thought she would return to work three months after having a baby. But plans changed. “I looked for a long time, but I just couldn’t find a competent and consistent nanny.”
A thriving economy of care centers for children as well as older people, crèches, and domestic helpers can offer options for women who want and need to pursue careers. It also creates millions of new jobs.
There are as many models of the care economy as there are countries. Sweden’s childcare system offers affordable daycare and paid leave which parents can choose to share. Much of the system’s success is because Sweden subsidizes costs and rewards quality. Private care providers receive public funding only if they follow national quality guidelines. This has increased and standardized the quality of services offered by providers throughout the country. It turns out that kids who go to daycare display better cognitive skills and psychological health.
Mexico’s Day Care Support for Working Mothers program has community-based care providers and covers up to 90% of the cost of childcare for women who work, want to work, or are studying. The program increased the proportion of beneficiary mothers who were employed by 18% and the average number of hours they worked each week increased by six. It also generated more than 40,000 paid jobs for providers and aides, most of whom were women.
India can be even more ambitious. Examples of high-quality affordable care services within the country already abound. Mobile Creches, an NGO started in 1969, provides childcare facilities to communities underserved by government. Among the testimonies they cite is one by the mother of a 3-year-old child. It is filled with relief: “Earlier, my attention was divided, [but now] I am able to focus on my sewing and doubling my earnings.”
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The benefits trickle down from mothers. When children were enrolled in community day-care centers (Balwadis) in Rajasthan for prolonged periods, they showed gains in nutrition, hygiene, cognition, and school readiness skills.
There are countless stories and testimonies, one more powerful than the next, but they only reaffirm what has been plain to see for years. When reassuring caregiving options are made available, everybody benefits. The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in Japan saw this first-hand with more than a fourfold increase in the retention of new mothers and saving an estimated $45 million in employee turnover after it offered childcare and extended maternity leave.
Why should India invest heavily in the care sector? Because the interest is compounded. The work of the Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman shows that early childhood care leads to some of the highest returns on any investments governments can make. It has immediate and long-term benefits through reductions in the need for special education and remediation; better health outcomes; reduced need for social services; lower criminal justice costs; and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families. Conversely, a lack of investments in childcare during early years ends up creating deficits in skills and abilities, and inevitably drives down overall productivity, adding heavy financial costs to countries in the long run.
By some estimates, the combined senior and childcare market in India is currently worth just $8 billion—less than a fifth of the size of the US market for daycare alone. Yet India has four times the size of the U.S.’s dependent population. Its need for formal care support is greater. If India focused on childcare alone, it could create up to 4 million new jobs in the care industry — of which the vast majority would go to women — and help up to 10 million additional women participate in the workforce.
The bigger challenge is to end the stigma of outsourcing care. Despite the advantages, the number of Indian families who use childcare is insignificant. One of the big reasons for this is the guilt associated with outsourcing care. Women would like to work, but are reluctant to outsource care out of fear that children and elders might feel isolated or estranged, and that, in general, it’s not a good look.
There are ways to work around this. In Japan — where, like in India, people are expected to care for their parents into older age — community-based or home-based day-care services for seniors are popular alternatives to full-time residential care. Karnataka has its Grama Hiriyara Kendras, care centers that feed and look after senior citizens four hours a day, with helpers trained in geriatric care. There are early indications of growing social acceptance of the Kendras.
It will take generations to undo the stigma around using carers outside the home. To speed this up, there needs to be clear evidence that the solution works in practice.
Users want quality. Professionalizing the sector will help. Families will want to know that their children and elderly parents are looked after by qualified staff in safe, high-quality facilities. Industry-wide accredited training and professional standards can help do this. Sweden’s example also shows how the government can step in to further encourage private providers to deliver quality services. If the care economy is to grow sustainably into a dynamic and productive sector, the 4 million jobs that could be created need to be good jobs, where employees are protected and can carry out their work with dignity.
Bridgital solutions — that deliberately use advanced technology to simultaneously enable access and generate employment — can signal a professional approach, which in turn would help undo the stigma associated with outsourcing care. For instance, childcare workers — whether attached to a care center or standalone — could be integrated into a cloud-based management system which allows them to do administrative tasks like reporting attendance, health and safety records, and also to undergo training. This would also enable real-time check-ins and scheduling, and offer a source of collaboration among parents. Moreover, individuals can also create a transferable professional history by adopting this platform-based approach, deepening their integration into the formal economy.
From Natarajan Chandrasekaran and Roopa Purushothaman’s Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology’s People Problem, excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.