Business Today

Why women drop out

Geetanjali Shuklaand twitter-logoShweta Punj | Print Edition: September 18, 2011

It is a Catch-22. A booming economy and a changing social structure are bringing more Indian women into the workforce every year. But the same factors are making them drop out as well. Business Today held a panel discussion at The Leela, Mumbai, to debate the subject: How 'ready' are Indian marriages to accept professional women? Our panellists were the ones who also figured in our Hall of Fame: six of corporate India's top women managers. Why were they asked this question? Well, who better than the best to debate a dilemma every working, married Indian woman faces?

"When women are in their thirties, their work and family responsibilities often peak together. It is then you find a lot of women dropping out," said ICICI Bank chief Chanda Kochhar. Kochhar's former colleague Shikha Sharma, currently Managing Director of Axis Bank, agreed. "Earlier, there was compelling economic logic for women to continue working after marriage, and they had a support system," she added. "This logic has now weakened compared to the last two decades, and family support systems are definitely breaking down."

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Support systems have withered not only due to the rise of nuclear families, but also because of the changing outlook of grandparents. "The grandmothers of today are likely to say: 'Why do I have to look after your baby when I have already looked after you?'" said Sharma.

Power women
TAFE chief Mallika Srinivasan, HSBC India head Naina Lal Kidwai, Swati Piramal of Piramal Life Sciences, ICICI Bank's Chanda Kochhar, Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Axis Bank's Shikha Sharma at The Leela Mumbai

The way out, Sharma felt, was an alternative social support system. "The trend we've seen over the last 10 years - an increasing number of women joining the workforce - will see some strain in this decade. At least until traditional support systems are replaced by alternative ones," she said. Mallika Srinivasan, Chairperson and CEO, Tractors and Farm Equipment, or TAFE, noted that a critical mass of women were needed in the workforce before companies began providing alternative support systems, "It is essential that we hire more women in manufacturing and only then can we provide them with support facilities," she said.

All six panellists, however, agreed that the phenomenon of women dropping out due to economic need tapering off was largely restricted to urban India. "Semiurban areas are where aspirations are higher," said Sharma. "They have seen the benefits of a double-income family, so women there are more likely to keep working."

In rural India, a working woman's role was more complex. "A rural woman's ecosystem has changed enough for her husband to now allow her to work," said Naina Lal Kidwai, HSBC's India Head. "But she still has to come home after work and do all the chores." Kochhar held a different view on what is happening in urban India. She felt the urban working woman's outlook also had to change. "To be able to lead this dual life, balancing work and family, I need to give in somewhere. I find that attitude missing in many urban women," she said.

Kidwai added that a marriage in which both spouses were on an equal footing was the key to women not falling out of the workforce. "Couples who stay in are the ones who share chores, and women who fall by the wayside are the ones who do not have a marriage that supports them," she said.

Aspirations are higher in semiurban areas. They have seen the benefi ts of a double-income family. Women there are more likely to keep working - Shikha Sharma, MD, Axis Bank
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director, Biocon, concurred. "Shared responsibilities are the only way more women will pursue careers," she said. A booming economy seemed to be playing spoilsport here as well. "As long as there was the economic need for women to work, men were more willing to adjust," said Kidwai. "As the need is tapering off, the adjustment factor is reducing."

One way to stem the dropout trend, said Sharma, was to get women in the vulnerable age group to interact with those who had, despite odds, managed to hang on to their careers. "Maybe we should pinpoint promising women in their early thirties - the age at which they have their first child and are most likely to drop out - and get them to talk to women who have lived through," she said. Both Mazumdar-Shaw and Srinivasan felt forums like BT's Most Powerful Women could be used to highlight role models who could inspire these women.

Swati Piramal, Vice Chairperson, Piramal Life Sciences, the sole working grandmother on our panel, felt that as long as there was a national need for more women to join the workforce, all other factors - economic or social - would fall into place enabling women to work.

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