Since the 1990s, women have been steadily entering the workplace in India. However, society has been slow to change its thinking.

by dr. Radha Rangarajan

I started my career as a scientist in the year 2000, after getting my PhD. Along with starting the job, I was also a new mom. Between juggling my research work in the lab and caring for a baby, I was often an emotional wreck. I was concerned about my daughter’s care and wondering if I should end my career. But I persevered and kept working. This meant that high-quality (out-of-school) care remained a constant need for the next 15 years. It was often a difficult balancing act and sometimes full of uncertainty. Sadly, two decades later, millions of families are still grappling with the same issues as they juggle the responsibilities of earning a living and raising children.

When I look back at my experiences, there are many factors worth considering. First, my husband saw himself as an equal partner and supported my ambitions to build a career. This meant he was invested in the support systems we created and we didn’t get into conflict on financial or ideological grounds. Second, we had the support of our extended families on both sides who believed that both our careers mattered. Third, we were able to afford childcare and were lucky enough to find caregivers who loved our daughters like their own. This confluence of thinking and doing made it possible for my husband and I to work full-time, even when our children were very young. Many do not have the same support and the result is usually that the woman leaves the workforce.

Since the 1990s, women have been steadily entering the workplace in India. However, society has been slow to change its thinking. Highly patriarchal societies like ours have conditioned men to think that women are the primary caregivers. In fact, this thought process is so ingrained that one of my employers once asked why they (employers) should worry about childcare when it only matters to women! The lack of co-ownership has a cascade effect on who is responsible for the solution. It is the woman who bears the disproportionate burden and when systems break, women are forced to leave the workforce. This was illustrated time and again during the pandemic. Data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) Consumer Pyramids Household Survey shows that the employment rate of women in urban areas fell to 6.9% in November 2020, compared to 9.7% in 2019-20. Moreover, individuals who solve the problem one by one leave the collective need for childcare unaccounted for and the burden on women is swept under the rug. The impact of the loss of female talent on the labor market also remains undocumented and unmeasured.

If we as a society are serious about raising our children in a safe and loving environment, the articulation of childcare as women’s work must change. This means raising sons differently, sensitizing men and questioning prejudices as employers, colleagues and leaders. Nothing hurts more than being told you can’t accomplish something because of your gender. Likewise, women with young children may need empathy, guidance, and encouragement to get through the difficult stages. According to a 2018 study titled “Predicament of Returning Mothers” by the Genpact Center for Women’s leadership at Ashoka University, 73% of women leave their jobs after giving birth! Given these numbers, accommodating women’s limitations, especially in the early stages of rearing, should not be considered a favor. It is a collective responsibility.

At the same time, systemic changes are very necessary. Finding childcare should become easier and more affordable. The number of nurseries must increase drastically. In order to guarantee a high quality of care, there must be rules. A combination of tax credits, government subsidies and public-private partnerships should be used to reduce the burden on families. The Scandinavian countries are often cited as having the best maternity and childcare benefits. The cornerstone of their policy is the emphasis on universal access. In Sweden, for example, the high quality and affordability of childcare means that 85% of children under 5 attend kindergarten. The state therefore has a role to play in providing solutions for families from all socio-economic strata. Services do not have to be free, but the quality must be uniform.

One of the most effective childcare strategies, in my opinion, is workplace care. A handful of companies and government agencies offer this, but most others don’t want it. They see it as a cost to the company and a source of liability. What they don’t realize is that parents are much better employees when their children are well taken care of. In fact, enabling childcare for their employees is the surest way to ensure loyalty, reduce turnover, improve productivity and promote diversity. What is there to lose!

With another Women’s Day being celebrated and women’s achievements being counted, let’s recognize that there is still much more to do. We must commit to meeting the fundamental need for affordable childcare. It’s not just a women’s issue.

(The author is Chief Technology Officer at HealthCubed, a medical device company. Opinions expressed are personal.)

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