Women’s Day – When Will the Promised Best Arrive?

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When I began writing this essay, I had been reading Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. The date of its publication, on International Women’s Day, was an added irony.

When Jaffe’s book came out 66 years ago, about a decade after Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the relationship between women and work was rarely discussed, if at all. It mattered to either the intellectually curious few who engaged in philosophical inquiry on the subject, or the conscious working woman herself who was cognisant of her role in the second wave of feminism and what she aimed to achieve from it.

The women in Jaffe’s novels belonged to none of these categories. Like most ordinary women, they saw work, at least initially, as a chapter, not a whole new world they were unknowingly participating in. For most of them, working life was either a financial necessity or just an interlude before the ‘more important’ milestones: marriage, children, comfortable domesticity.

One would think much would have changed in over half a century since then. That the idea of the working woman would’ve found its way out of mere academic musing to a more concrete, tangible framework that enabled that idea. To be fair, things have changed. But if the credit for that must go to anyone, it has to be women and women alone. Their progress has largely – if not completely – been not because of, but despite the world. A bunch of headlines from the month gone by prompt me to say this.

‘Marriage No Ground For Sacking A Woman’

This was what the Supreme Court had to spell out last month as it heard a plea by the Centre challenging the decision of an Armed Forces Tribunal that ruled in favour of the reinstatement of a woman who was dismissed from her job. Selina John, a Lieutenant in the Military Nursing Service in 1988, had to leave because she got married. The rule that facilitated this, Army Instruction No. 61 of 1977, listed the grounds for the termination of an appointment, and in there, marriage was as much an infraction as breach of contract or misconduct. Though the rule was struck down in 1995, it took another 30 years for John to get a decision in her favour. “We are unable to accept any submission that the respondent – Ex. Lt. Selina John – could have been released/discharged on the ground that she had got married. Such rule was ex-facie manifestly arbitrary, as terminating employment because the woman has got married is a coarse case of gender discrimination and inequality,” the court observed. 

John’s win, however, is not the norm when it comes to discrimination in the labour market. Crores of women in India are not even looking for work, for a variety of reasons, according to Oxfam’s 2022 India Discrimination Report. The labour force participation rate (FLFPR) for women in India is 37%, which means just one in three women in India are either working or seeking work. For most women, especially in the unorganised sector, when they do get work, it’s rarely long-term because demand remains erratic. Over half of the women who were in the labour force in at least a four-month period reported exiting or entering the workforce more than two times, according to a study published in 2021 by the Institute of Labour Economics. Which means even if a woman is looking for work, stable, long-term employment is difficult to sustain.

Gender discrimination is almost “total” in the country – a 100% – the Oxfam report states. That is, all women are discriminated against in work regardless of their socioeconomic location. Gender-based discrimination is the reason for 98% of the employment gap between salaried males and females in urban areas; only 2% can be attributed to endowments. In plainer words, it may not matter to an employer how qualified or educated a woman is, because she is a woman. That unjustness is more pronounced in rural areas, where women from families that have climbed up the economic ladder or gained some social capital tend to not even look for work due to sociocultural reasons. All this means that there are crores of well-qualified, educated women simply sitting outside of the workforce.

‘Women Can’t Be Denied Government Jobs Because Of Pregnancy’ 

The Uttarakhand High Court observed last month as it struck down a rule that barred women who had been pregnant for 12 weeks or more from getting government jobs. The court was hearing a plea filed by a woman who was denied employment as a nursing officer at a government hospital after a fitness certificate declared her “temporarily unfit”. “If a situation is visualised that a woman who joins service on fresh appointment and becomes pregnant after joining would get maternity leave, then why can’t a pregnant woman join her duties on fresh appointment? After joining, she would also be entitled to maternity leave,” the High Court observed. 

While the court’s intervention was necessary, the entitlement to maternity leave has become almost a Pyrrhic victory for women. Working mothers may have broken through the glass ceiling, it’s the ‘maternal wall’ that many struggle to scale. Denying women employment opportunities due to pregnancy is illegal under various laws, including the Code of Social Security and the Maternity Benefit Act. However, the maternal wall ensures that even if a woman employee is not terminated, her ‘performance’ is often excessively scrutinised when she becomes a mother, applies for paid maternity leave, or requests flexible work schedules.

In 2017, when India extended maternity benefits from 18 to 26 weeks, experts highlighted that without adequate monitoring mechanisms and paternity leave, which would redistribute unpaid caregiving responsibilities between both parents and mitigate women from bearing the sole burden of career disruptions in the long term, employers would persist in disregarding the regulations. Consequently, maternity leave might even deter some employers from hiring women of childbearing age.

In the unorganised sector, women in infrastructure or construction jobs were declared eligible for maternity benefits only last month. While this is a welcome step, without additional safeguards, it may place the employability of women wage workers under a similar – in fact, a much heavier – strain than that faced by women in formal jobs.

All of this influences the pay disparity between men and women, with women often placed at a disadvantage as they balance work and personal responsibilities. Men capture 82% of the labour income in India. Women, only 18%.

This leads me to the next headline…

‘Homemaker’s Work No less Than Salary-Earning Spouse’s’

In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court addressed a case involving the assessment of a housewife’s notional income, which was deemed to be lower than that of a daily wage worker. The case arose from a motor accident that claimed a woman’s life, prompting deliberation on the compensation owed to her family based on her life expectancy and hypothetical income. A tribunal determined her “notional income” to be less than that of a daily wage earner, a decision upheld by the High Court.

“The role of a homemaker is as important as that of a family member whose income is tangible. If the activities performed by a homemaker are computed one by one, there cannot be any doubt that the contribution is of a high order and is invaluable. In fact, it is difficult to compute her contributions only in monetary terms,” the Supreme Court said as it differed with the High Court.

For the sake of argument though, let’s consider the monetary terms. All women work, very few are paid for it. Women’s unpaid domestic work makes up as much as 7.5% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, or Rs 22.7 lakh crore, according to a 2023 report by the State Bank of India. As many as 92% of women aged 15-59 years- irrespective of whether they’re formally employed or not – are engaged in unpaid domestic work, compared to just 21% of men, India’s First Time-Use Survey in 2019 showed.

Working women bear a ‘double’ burden. Despite their significant contribution to the economy, nearly no economic policy has effectively quantified women’s unpaid work, which encompasses not only household chores but also agricultural labour on family farms or in animal husbandry, effectively subsidizing the costs of actual labour. Women are seldom acknowledged as ‘farmers’ in India. Their labour remains invisible to policymakers, while the women themselves are often relegated to mere ‘dependents’ of the predominantly male head of the family.

‘Argument of Functional Difference Can’t Work In 2024’

It was the Supreme Court again that last month took up the plea of a woman officer in the Indian Coast Guard who was seeking permanent commission. The Centre argued that the Coast Guard functions “a little differently” from the Navy and the Army, where women are eligible for permanent commission. “All this functionality etc. arguments do not hold water in 2024. Women cannot be left out,” the Supreme Court shot back.

What’s glaringly evident in these headlines is the persistent and universal neglect towards developing a labour market that can accommodate a group constituting half of India’s population. Jaffe’s book begins with an advertisement from the New York Times: “You deserve the best of everything, the best job, the best surroundings, the best pay, the best contacts.”

When will the promised best arrive?

PS: In other news, India’s first human space flight programme will have no women as there were no female test pilots in the country at the time of selection. But the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is confident that it will be able to send women astronauts in space very soon. Till then, there is that female humanoid robot, ‘Vyommitra’, to make up for the cosmic absence.  

(The author is Assistant Editor, Opinions, NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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