Desperately seeking a future for women in the workforce

by Aditi Seshadri

The best book I’ve read this year is the cleverly titled Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya, a book that seems like it’s about the star power of Shah Rukh Khan but is, in fact, a powerful, insightful commentary into the lives of women in India post the 1990s navigating life and society and the quest for love, choice and freedom.

Why the 1990s? Why Shah Rukh? Because both heralded a change in aspirations, economics and societal fabric for India, especially for women growing up then and after. Using the common thread of SRK fandom, the author follows the lives and arcs of women in different parts of India, across class, caste and religion, tracing codes around love, familial relations and – for me the most absorbing themes – around the economics of women and work and its resulting power-play and politics.

In January 2018, 77% of India’s workers were male. In 2019, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy found that women accounted for only 10.7% of the workforce. As many as 21 million women have quit the workforce between 2017 and 2022 due to inequal household duties, lack of childcare and eldercare, among other reasons. For the past 25 years, gaps between men and women in the rural labour force have widened to historic proportions. The gap between the share of men and women in the urban workforce has remained consistently wide.

There continue to be innumerable hurdles in India for women to find dignified, paid work and when they do, it’s often harder to stay in the workforce for a host of other reasons.

As seen in the book, you could be a high-flyer in a posh Delhi drawing room and suffer so much self-doubt and have very little agency when it came to men in your circle or you could be in any of India’s tier-2 cities and battle constant strife and stigma to seek a career ‘outside the home’ as an accountant or stewardess. In some cases, further away from the cosmopolitanism of cities, in conservative small towns, the drudgery of home-based work and circumscribed lives can blunt dreams.

That is why women NEED to work, that is why we WANT to work. Between January and April 2021, CMIE data say 18.4% of urban women who wanted to work were unemployed as were 11.5% rural women. The corresponding data were 6.6% for urban men and 5.8% for rural men.

When we talk about women in the workforce, we often make the case from the point of view of the greater common good – it’s good for the nation, it contributes to GDP, it helps families eat better… But for me, it’s about empowering individual agency and creating the space for independent decisions.

I’m aware that a combination of vast privilege, some resistance, a few good choices and a fair amount of hard work puts me in an elite group of women who has been able to build a career and earn a steady income, is financially literate, which in turn has enabled me to own assets, provide healthcare and other needs for my kin, while also having the ability to pursue leisure – things that many men take for granted, things that are still out of grasp for millions and millions of women even today.

Last year I wrote about the marvelous Sudeshji – mom, entrepreneur and village role model – who sparkles with a confidence that can come only from a the determination, power and strength that comes with setting up training centres, hiring people, engaging with a larger community and, essentially, running a business. Or take the likes of Rohini, the indomitable domestic worker who worked with me in Mumbai for years, who chose to have one child – a girl – and was determined to give that girl the best education she could afford through the multiple jobs she had, who called me a few months ago to tell me that the girl is now finishing college, the first in the family to ever do so.

Closer to me, I see friends, acquaintances, colleagues striving every day – military wives trained to pack up and move every few years, absorbing the disruptions and changes, bringing incredible multitasking abilities and openness to their work; entrepreneur moms and working moms with tiny babies, using those challenges and constraints to improve efficiency; retired women professionals seeking ways to contribute time and knowledge – it’s incredible what we can do with what we have, right?

Revolutions are not always out on the streets or on Twitter campaigns, they are also what Shrayana calls ‘intimate revolutions’ and ‘daal subzi’ feminism. In homes (every day that I have a choice on whether to cook or not is a win), in offices (every time a woman is able to rejoin the workforce after having a baby is a hallelujah) or even in movie theatres – every time you are able to buy a ticket for yourself to watch your favourite star, well, that’s the best kind of ‘kuch kuch hota hai’.

(Published on LinkedIn; Sep 21, 2022)

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