Some time ago, The Economist published a cover story which focused on the women missing from the workforce in India. It held out the tempting figure of 27 per cent as the addition to the economy if the workforce was to be rebalanced. On this front, there is really very little good news. Indian women are less likely to work than in any other G20 country barring Saudi Arabia.
The employment rate for women in 2005-06 was 36 per cent; it has gone down to 24 per cent in 2015-16. There are 470 million women of working age, yet there are barely 10 million who are actually working. None of this is new. But, the worrying thing is that women who drop out mainly for reasons of relocation or childbirth find it difficult to get back to work. In the case of skilled workers, they find that the organisation often does not want them back as they have been replaced by someone more skilled or cheaper. There is also the perception that once a woman has had a child, she is less likely to pay as much attention to her job as before. This is largely untrue and unfair but that is how it goes.
So I was happily surprised to learn of an initiative called Reboother started by Anupama Kapoor, a gender intelligence facilitator, and Gopika Kaul, a digital media professional, which deals with the problems women face when they return to work after maternity leave. They found that, for various reasons, 48 per cent of such women drop out of the workforce within four months of returning.
Among the reasons is the lack of help to look after their babies or being passed up for promotions. Reboother aims at creating a community of such women to share and learn from each other and to work out sustainable solutions.
One of the main planks is to help women upgrade their skills so they stay relevant in the workplace. It also looks at barriers women face when they re-enter the workforce, and tries to work out ways to get around these. Coming back after maternity leave also leads to a lack of confidence among many women and they need to get back into the groove. Reboother’s corporate partners help in mentorship and providing more job opportunities. There are many women role models who have proved that motherhood is no barrier to workplace achievement. They could easily be tapped as mentors to other women.
Many employers are also prejudiced against women who come back to work after having children. It is assumed that the woman will take leave to attend to her children and that her mind will not be fully on the job. An enlightened employer would see it differently. The new mother is likely to work that much harder to finish her work so she can get home at a reasonable hour. Such a woman is an asset to any company and hopefully initiatives like Reboother will help change attitudes.
The reluctance of many workplaces to provide space for creches also means that they lose a lot of talent by way of women workers. It is a huge loss for the workforce in general to lose trained workers when small changes in policy and relatively small investments could alter things.
It would be useful if workplaces constituted a committee to deal with helping women reintegrate into the workforce and equip them with new skills, if necessary. Many women experience a sense of worthlessness and suffer from low self-esteem when, after a productive career, they find themselves stuck at home on account of having had a child. This is damaging for them, has a negative impact on their families and is a loss for the economy.
Many more programmes like Reboother could be an answer, but the employer has to consider investing in their women workers a worthwhile exercise. However small, a beginning has been made to at least talk about this problem openly.