The Subtle Forces Pulling Working Women Home
Much has been said about the so-called leaking pipeline of Indian women dropping out of the workforce. We’ve posited many explanations for this phenomenon, from corporate policies to inadequate government protection to workplace bias or women’s own ambition. But so far, we’ve not explored the biases in our own homes that may be pulling working women away from paid work.
Pressure from home could be multifarious. There are, of course, the women who are told directly by their husbands or in-laws that they should not work after marriage. Those messages are definitive within the families where this is the cultural norm. Or there are those women who are expected to move to the city where their husband’s job is, without much regard for where they’ve built the beginnings of a career and professional reputation; this pressure is quieter, but it belies the same set of gender biases that condition the belief that men’s jobs are the priority.
Then there are the subtler still forms of extended family pressure. For example, those in-laws who tell newly-married girls that they may continue to pursue work outside the home, provided, of course, that it not affect their responsibilities in the home. In a culture where so much is expected of young mothers – that they be attentive and available wives, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law – this caveat creates an impossible choice.
A woman who is faced with trying to cook for and maintain an entire household, while being the primary parent and caretaker for the elderly in the home, and simultaneously perform at a full-time job, will eventually have to give up in one arena. She will either burn out, or cave under the pressure of trying to do it all, or decide the constant stress is just not worth it. Usually, the casualty is the job.
But the pressure keeps getting more insidious. There are the casual comments that grandparents drop: “Why have a stranger looking after your kids in the day when you are the best possible caretaker for them?”or “How can you go to office when your child is sick?”
One of the panelists at our recent Women & Work event described her own mother sobbing the first day her children went to daycare. Leaving aside any questions about the availability or quality of reliable daycare, what this anecdote portrays is a deep cultural mistrust for any childcare outside the home. Consequently, it’s almost always mothers who end up shouldering the blame, the burden of guilt, or ultimately, sacrificing paid work in the name of family care.
But extended family aside, the most dangerous pressure may come from the spouses themselves. Many of the women we spoke to in preparation for our Women & Work event reported feeling that their spouses were involved, engaged, interested partners in childcare and parenting, and yet, there was no doubt in either parent’s mind who was expected to take primary responsibility for the children.
In one American study that so powerfully illustrates this bias, researchers found that when a child needed to take a sick day from school, it was ten times more likely to be the mother who stayed home from work to care for the child.
Despite equal education, professional aspirations, or abilities, many of our own subconscious biases support the mother-as-child-rearer premise. And ultimately, this bias will creep into marital discussions about family. Husbands will ask “Did you have to stay at that meeting so late?” or “Have you noticed the kids are so much happier when you’re home in the afternoon?” These comments may not be accusatory or antagonistic, but they are, nonetheless, exactly the type of pressure that can build slowly and surreptitiously, until a mother is convinced that it is her responsibility to be home early, or be around for the kids.
Women should pursue paid work outside the home when it fulfils them; they should make childcare and home-related work their primary occupation when that seems most fulfilling. But it is the ability to make these choices in an unencumbered fashion, and with the support of their spouses and extended families, that seems to be eluding most educated Indian women who leave the workforce.
It may still be a generation or two away. But when Indian men begin to realise that home is not the domain of mothers and wives only, or when they stay home from work half the time their children take a sick day, we will have moved closer to the kind of parity that lets women decide freely what’s right for them.
Otherwise, working women will always be battling the whispers telling them that they matter most when they’re at home. And when the whispers come from parents, in-laws, and husbands, they are impossible to ignore.