Thursday, June 20, 2024

Women at the workplace


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By Patricia Mukhim

Much work has gone into the study of women as a growing work force and the impact it has on their mental, emotional and physical health and what it means to be multi-tasking and straddling between “work” as it is defined in the workplace and “domestic work” which is equally if not more demanding but to which no ‘cost’ is attached. Scholars worldwide recognise that while women have significantly increased their participation in the labour force over the past half century, men have not adequately increased their commitment to child care and house work. This unequal sharing of domestic responsibilities is likely to be starker in India where patriarchy is still deeply embedded despite the apparent upward spiral in the number of upwardly mobile families. Reality television shows are an indicator of the truth.

What happens as a result is that working women carry additional burdens not just of ‘domestic’ work but also catering to the needs of their children like helping them with homework, caring for the elders in the family (in the case of couples living with parents of either the husband or the wife). In a matrilineal society it is incumbent upon the youngest daughter to look after her aged parents. This places a tremendous burden on the working woman. Yet, she takes all that in her stride without a murmur because our society is very gendered and women are culturally programmed to believe that house work is their duty and responsibility. Even nurses and women doctors and others in professions which have shift duties do not get enough time to catch up on their sleep when they have night duties because work awaits them when they get home.

So while the gender gap in domestic work has declined since 1965 in the western world and the typical married father in 2000 performed 21 hours a week of unpaid domestic labour (housework and child care combined), in India no such study had been conducted. But it can be expected that the change, if any, would be hardly palpable. How many male academics (supposed to know more about gender discourses) including those who talk of gender equity in the classroom can claim to be doing 21 hours of unpaid domestic work a week? And yet this is the class that is supposed to be most sensitive about gender equity and a equitable gender division of labour. If the educated class does not practice what they know, how can we expect change to come in?

Seldom do men opt for child care. Their easy excuse is that the mother does it better; that she is naturally primed for child care. Women tend to get carried away by such praises and believe they are playing an important and indispensable role. Such notions should change. Also I have often heard even the most educated men say, “The kitchen is my wife’s domain. She is the queen there and wants no intrusion.” Women who are full time home makers often like to feel important by controlling the kitchen and therefore send a message that they are indispensable to the family and to its culinary needs. Such full time home makers are a dwindling species. Today most families run on the salaries of both male and female members. Both are therefore expected to share the domestic work. So why do men continue to resist sharing domestic responsibilities? Why are most men not able to find their clothes? Why can’t they even make a cup of tea when guests drop by? How many men will agree to take on responsibilities at home to enable their wives to complete their research work or their special assignments? Many women who wish to further their academic careers have found it tough to manage between their ambition and their family commitments. Men usually do not have such qualms.

In recent times scientists are studying the relation between gender and sleep. Sleep we are told is important to the health of an individual. We are told that we need seven hours of sleep for a healthy mind and body. Are women getting that amount of sleep especially when they have just delivered a child and have to wake up 3-4 times in a single night? Are they able to recover that sleep during the day? Currently gender and family scholars have examined how sleep is scheduled around and reconciled with gender responsibilities as parent and provider. Just think of a normal situation in our day to day lives. When someone is ill in hospital normally it is women who keep night vigils because most hospitals would not allow men around at night. No one ever asks the woman how she will recover her sleep the next day. And if there is a bed-ridden patient at home, would men keep night vigils? Isn’t that a woman’s only task in most societies?

It is worth considering therefore how lack of sleep would affect a woman scientist, doctor, nurse, scholar who all need to work methodically. Do we wonder then why sometimes nurses make mistakes with their injections or why they are on a short fuse? We need to look at the underlying causes about why women in careers sometimes under-perform or are ticked off for taking a day off or for falling ill too frequently.

The notion of the man or the father as the ‘breadwinner’ continues to dominate our consciousness even when sometimes the woman earns more than her husband. This mindset has to change and men need to admit that women are juggling far too many things from career to child care to care for the elderly, to shopping, cooking, cleaning, bathing the kids, helping them cope with school work and finally feeding them and tucking them in bed. In the west men now share the domestic work which includes bathing their kids, feeding them putting them to sleep. It will take a long time for men in India to meet those expectations since our societal arrangements are highly gendered.

Working women today need more state intervention to enable them to pursue their careers without compromising on their biological roles. The emergence of the term DINK (Double Income No Kids) amongst the BPO and call centre workers suggests that the couple do not want to make compromises on the professional front; that the husband is unwilling to put in more time in domestic work to allow his wife to conceive and have a child. Hence we need more modern and well maintained crèches and flexi-timings for working women when they need to spend more time with their new-born kids. Also this is an age when women can very well work from home.

Women activists need to push harder for gender sensitive policies. Too often women tend to consider their private lives as sacred but that is no longer the case today. Personal is political. When too many women suffer from discriminatory practices it becomes a political problem necessitating state policies to bring in the necessary changes.

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