Batia Katz contributed to this post.
Despite India’s strong economic growth, women’s labor force participation in India has decreased—from 33 percent in 2005, to 27 percent in 2010, to 24 percent in 2019. Even with increased investment in women’s access to education and professional opportunity, women are leaving the labor market, dampening economic productivity and innovation.
So why are women opting out?
Bhavani Arabandi offered answers in a presentation to Urban Institute staff titled Karma and the Myth of the Indian Superwoman.
Arabandi spoke to highly skilled, highly educated Indian women as part of an ethnographic study to determine why they step away from lucrative, fulfilling careers. She examined how structural barriers—the disadvantages, constraints, and discouragement women face—are “treated as normal by society and often internalized.”
Meet Ramya, a "new Indian woman"
In the 1990s, India liberalized its restrictive trade and investment regime, invigorating the private services sector. This “new India” created conditions for the “new Indian woman”: informed and educated consumers, professionals, and mothers who, according to Arabandi, were “heralded as the people to bring India into the 21st century.”
For her ethnography, Arabandi interviewed 20 new Indian women, ages 34 to 48, with professional degrees—including doctors, engineers, and other women in STEM—about their work-life experiences in three of India’s tech capitals: Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Delhi.
One such woman, Ramya, 37, earned her MBA and was recruited to work for a financial institution in Mumbai. Her arranged marriage meant transferring to her employer’s Delhi office. When she became pregnant with her daughter a few years later, her stay-at-home mother-in-law forbade her from working full time.
Ramya stepped away from her career at her family’s behest, but she felt unsatisfied and regretted being unable to use her education and experience; she felt her calling wasn’t to be a stay-at-home mom. She said, “Bringing up a child is challenging, but you don’t need an MBA to do it. I want to explore new skills and grow as an individual, which I can’t do while at home.”
When offered a job at another company, their rigid scheduling policies conflicted with her need for flexibility as a mother, leading them to turn her away.
Women face structural barriers while balancing their families and careers
Arabandi explained how women feel they can’t complain when stressed over balancing careers and families because “work-family balance and conflict is seen as a personal choice, rather than being shaped by structural inequality.” They choose to pursue a career, thereby choosing its requisite struggles and sacrifices.
She explains how the “choice” itself is misleading: “Women are also confronted with a ‘choice gap,’ the disjuncture between the rhetoric of choice and the reality of constraints that shape women’s decisions to leave the labor force.”
And as families pressure mothers to walk away from their careers, their employers and colleagues make conditions increasingly hostile to encourage their exit, such as treating flexibility as a reflection of poor work ethic, creating a disparity in experience between men and women.
Solutions like flexible schedules are supported in theory, but in practice, these new approaches are met with skepticism and can lead to complaints from colleagues and poor performance reviews. Arabandi described the trend where “work could bleed into the home, but never vice versa.” And rebalancing responsibilities (PDF) at home between spouses, extended family, and child care providers is met with equal reluctance.
Even with large, multinational corporations operating in India’s biggest cities, workplace supports fail women, too. Arabandi said, “Despite claiming flexibility and family-friendly policies, workplaces… push out women that are not seen as ideal, unencumbered workers.”
Arabandi also notes a lack of mentorship at work. “Women in male-dominated, technology-oriented workplaces… often do not have mentors to advise them on how to build social capital, such as job contacts and networks, or to guide career advancement.”
When these relationships do form, new networks are weak and tenuous, leaving professional women to blame themselves for failures. “Because the formula for building a successful career as a woman is so opaque, women attribute their failures to individual reasons rather than systemic factors,” said Arabandi. Without role models or mentors, women seeking advancement lack support.
Apprenticeships can set up women for success
Arabandi remarked on the powerful potential of apprenticeships both in India and the US, noting how targeting apprenticeship programs toward young women establishes support systems early. When women apprentices are hired and advance on their career paths, they, in turn, support the next generation (PDF) of women apprentices.
Apprenticeships should come with policies to address India’s gender pay gap and to better support equal employment opportunities, and workplaces should ensure freedom from harassment.
Arabandi’s suggestions for improvement extend beyond India to the US:
- Flexible schedules mean both parents can contribute to family responsibilities.
- Strategic partnerships with local businesses and leveraging resources across government agencies can make apprenticeships accessible to anyone, regardless of gender, educational attainment, socioeconomic standing, and citizenship status.
- Preapprenticeships and youth apprenticeships allow young people to feel professionally empowered, supported, and involved from an early age.
Supporting women’s labor force participation
Around the world, women face barriers to labor force participation, including in the US. The economic value of women arises in various debates, and we’ve seen how cultural norms, workplace safety, rigid schedules, and unreliable child care arrangements create tenuous employment situations.
Arabandi asks us to remember that “individual human capital achievements in education and paid employment do not automatically determine women’s empowerment.” Policymakers and workplaces have roles to play in supporting women, including those working while pursuing an education.
Closing the gap between women’s educational attainment and labor force participation needs an architecture of policy and practice to empower women from a young age, supporting them through the prospect of motherhood and through a stable, fulfilling career.