For every 5 hours the average Indian woman spends on unpaid care work in a day, a man spends half an hour—a ratio over three times the global average.[i] Changing this ratio can dismantle entrenched gender roles and arrest the declining participation of women in India’s paid workforce. Alarmingly, between 2006 and 2021, India’s female labor force participation rate declined from 34% to an abysmal 22.3%.[ii]
This represents an immense economic and social loss. In terms of growth, increasing women’s labor force participation in India by 10% could have added $770 billion to the GDP between 2018 and 2025.[iii] More importantly, promoting financial independence among women will advance gender equality, a critical social goal. But to seize these benefits, women professionals have to be supported by a conducive ecosystem and policy environment which not only addresses workplace obstacles but also more pervasive social barriers. The foremost of these is care work.
What is this ‘care work’ that is disproportionately borne by women and nudges them to quit? ‘Care work’ may be broadly defined as the work of looking after the physical, psychological, emotional, and developmental needs of one or more other people and is the primary reason women drop out of the workforce.[iv] Other reasons include inflexible working hours, concerns of safety, and infrastructural inadequacies. Additionally, there are few opportunities for part-time work and multiple challenges surrounding the re-entry of women into the labor force.
A necessary condition for women to go out to work is that men pick up the slack at home. Their current lack of participation in care work is as much a problem of social norms as it is a structural issue. Surveys indicate that men view their contribution to domestic chores as ‘helping the women with their work’ rather than their own responsibility.[v] While combating these ingrained norms is a long-term goal, public policy will be instrumental in creating structures that enable and encourage men to take up care work. Potential policy interventions include introducing paternity leave, facilitating flexible work, and instituting wages for caregiving.[vi]
Statutory paternity leave is one of the most widely-used measures to promote men’s participation at home, especially in childcare. Although a growing number of organizations now offer this, including the government’s Central Civil Service,[vii] India is yet to see definite legislation on the topic.[viii] Research indicates that extended paternity leave is linked to fathers’ active involvement in care work and determines the allocation of domestic responsibilities between couples in the years to come.[ix] Not only is this essential for men’s wellbeing, but it also mitigates the negative impact of motherhood on their partner’s career, and diminishes the household’s long-term gender wage gap.[x] At the workplace, an increase in men taking paternity leave could normalize maternity leave for women, and reduce the bias that mothers returning to work often face.
Given the ubiquity of gender stereotypes and the higher earning potential of men across borders, some countries have taken concrete steps to counter their effects on the uptake of paternity leave. Specifically, they have made paternity leave paid and non-transferable, and minimized eligibility restrictions.[xi]
Flexible work, an arrangement that was mainstreamed and degendered during the pandemic, represents another solution.[xii] Analysis indicates that men spent more time on domestic work during the 2020 lockdown when working remotely, even though women still bore the greater proportion.[xiii] We must not lose this advantage—while flexible work is a benefit usually granted at the employer’s discretion, there are global precedents for it to be laid down in policy. In the UK, for example, employees have a statutory right to request their employers for flexible working conditions.[xiv] Japan’s Child Care and Family Care Leave Act requires employers to provide shorter working hours, flexible timing, staggered working hours, remote work, or financial assistance for formal childcare or eldercare services.[xv] Though a lack of equivalent digital infrastructure in India limits the viability of such a policy on a large scale, incentive schemes for organizations that offer flexible working arrangements could be a possible solution.
Finally, an idea that has the potential to transform the balance of responsibility within homes is payment for care work. A proposition this radical is likely to face resistance, but implementable solutions include a salary for caregivers through a statutory deduction from the breadwinner’s salary or a contract between the two. Assigning economic value to care work could have a transformative impact on the—usually female—caregiver’s financial independence and push more men to take up this role by elevating its status in the household. While this has been an enduring idea in feminism, recognizing the value of care work deserves more consideration from policymakers.
For policy to be conducive for women in the workforce, it has to be gender-sensitive. Thus, it is equally important to remove or amend policies that reinforce the roles of the male breadwinner and female caregiver. For example, India’s Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 permits mothers to visit their workplace daycare centers up to 4 times a day but has no such provision for fathers, signaling that childcare is a women’s responsibility.[xvi] Such a policy enshrines regressive gender norms, and acts as a disincentive for men to take on care work.
Although these recommendations only apply to a fraction of India’s population—urban professionals who work in the organized sector—they can still create a tangible impact. This is the segment where the problem of women’s labor force participation is acute—in 2019, only 7% of urban Indian women were in paid employment,[xvii] and as household incomes grow, women are more likely to drop out of the workforce due to social pressure.[xviii]
However, even a well-thought-out policy will be constrained by gender norms. For example, while Sweden and Finland have among the highest uptake of paternity leave—70% and 82%, respectively—they also have more liberal social norms than India. On the other hand, countries like Japan and Korea fare differently.[xix] Both have provisions for one year of non-transferable paid parental leave, but only 2% of Japanese men with a newborn child have made use of it, and in Korea, men make up only 4.5% of parental leave users.[xx]
The importance of context means that policy must be social norms-intentional so it can enforce the practice of certain behaviors with time. For example, the Arogya Laxmi program in Telangana includes a unique ‘spot-feeding’ component[xxi] to ensure that the food provided under the scheme is consumed by its intended recipients, i.e., pregnant and lactating women.[xxii] Also, these essential policy interventions need to be supplemented with additional measures, like public campaigns that encourage men to take leave and be more involved at home.
The participation of men in care work will break down the principal barrier to women’s entry into the workforce, and in due time, reverse the trend of India’s falling female labor force participation. With public policy as a catalyst, India’s urban educated women have the potential to create a tremendous multiplier effect that can transform the country’s economic, social, and political trajectory. Rather than being the problem, they can, rightfully, be a part of the solution.
[i] International Labour Organization, Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work (Geneva, International Labour Office, 2018) [https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_633135.pdf].
[ii] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2021: Insight Report (Geneva, World Economic Forum, 2021) [https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2021.pdf].
[iii] McKinsey Global Institute, The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Asia Pacific. Focus: India (McKinsey & Company, 2018) [https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/the-power-of-parity-advancing-womens-equality-in-india-2018].
[iv] International Labour Organization, ABC of Women Workers’ Rights and Gender Equality, Second Edition (Geneva, International Labour Office, 2018). [https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—gender/documents/publication/wcms_087314.pdf]
[v] Ravinder Kaur and Sonalde Desai, “The Elusive Transformation: Household Responsibilities and COVID-19,” Feminist Perspectives (blog), 1 March 2021, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/the-elusive-transformation.
[vi] This assumes a household where the primary caregiver and the primary breadwinner are not the same person.
[vii] The Central Civil Service (Leave Rules), 1972, allows male government employees up to 15 days of paid leave.
[viii] In the manner of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017.
[ix] “A Fresh Look at Paternity Leave: Why the Benefits Extend Beyond the Personal,” McKinsey & Company, accessed 24 January 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/a-fresh-look-at-paternity-leave-why-the-benefits-extend-beyond-the-personal.
[x] José Andrés Fernández Cornejo et al., “Can an Egalitarian Reform in the Parental Leave System Reduce the Motherhood Labor Penalty? Some Evidence from Spain,” Revista Espanola de Sociologia 27, no. 3 (2018) [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325279625_Can_an_egalitarian_reform_in_the_parental_leave_system_reduce_the_motherhood_labor_penalty_Some_evidence_from_Spain].
[xi] UNFPA and Promundo, Engaging Men in Unpaid Care Work: An Advocacy Brief for Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Istanbul and Washington, D.C.: UNFPA and Promundo, 2018). [https://promundoglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Engaging-men-in-unpaid-care-work_ENG.pdf]
[xii] Flexible working is defined as a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. It can include flexibility in the scheduling of hours worked (alternative work schedules), flexibility in the number of hours worked (such as part-time work), and flexibility in the place of work (such as remote work). From: Workplace Flexibility 2010, Georgetown University Law Center, “Flexible Work Arrangements: A Definition And Examples,” Memos and Fact Sheets (2006). [https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/legal/10].
[xiii] Ashwini Deshpande, “The Covid-19 Pandemic and Lockdown: First Effects on Gender Gaps in Employment and Domestic Work in India,” Ashoka University Discussion Paper Series in Economics, DP No. 30 (2020). [https://dp.ashoka.edu.in/ash/wpaper/paper30.pdf].
[xv] Yoko Niimi, “Juggling Paid Work and Elderly Care Provision in Japan: Does a Flexible Work Environment Help Family Caregivers Cope?,” Journal of the Japanese and International Economies 62 (2021) [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0889158321000502?via%3Dihub].
[xvi] The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, §4(11A)(1)
[xvii] “Hardly Any Women in India are in Paid Employment,” The Economist, last modified 18 February 2021, accessed 24 January 2022, https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/02/18/hardly-any-women-in-india-are-in-paid-employment.
[xviii] “Culture and the Labour Market Keep India’s Women at Home,” The Economist, last modified 5 July 2018, accessed 24 January 2022, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/07/05/culture-and-the-labour-market-keep-indias-women-at-home.
[xix] Sweden and Finland offer shared parental leave with reserved, non-transferable entitlements. Sweden reserves 8 weeks for each parent, and Finland reserves 6 weeks for fathers. Japan allows both parents to take up to 12 months of parental leave, and 14 months if both parents take leave. This includes 8 weeks of postpartum leave for women. Similarly, South Korea provides parents with individual entitlements of 12 months of parental leave each. From: Willem Adema, Chris Clarke, and Olivier Thévenon, Background Brief on Fathers’ Leave and its Use (OECD, 2016) [https://www.oecd.org/els/family/Backgrounder-fathers-use-of-leave.pdf]
[xx] Adema, Clarke, and Thévenon, Background Brief on Fathers’ Leave and its Use
[xxi] Under the Arogya Laxmi program, pregnant and lactating women are fed one meal at the Anganwadi center (rural child care center) 25 days a month. This practice is called spot-feeding, and it was instituted because functionaries noticed that the take-home ration intended for these women was being shared among all family members.
[xxii] “Arogya Laxmi programme,” Department of Women Development & Child Welfare, Government of Telangana, accessed 24 January 2022, https://wdcw.tg.nic.in/Arogya_Lakshmi.html.