The Indian society is a patriarchal society owing to the influence of religion. The dominant religion in India is Hinduism and it looks on the woman as inferior to man. This discrimination finds its roots and definitive interpretation in the Manusmriti. The status and role of women were clearly delineated along with prescriptions for treatment. Fervent adherence to the smriti text led to the rise and domination of the males over the females. Over the centuries and generations, this negative view of the woman became ingrained in the minds of people who began to follow it without question. The consequences of such a view are terrible as one may imagine. The sad part is that even today, in our post-modern age, such primitive mindsets exist, some in their original form while others in a new way.
As our society developed and with the overwhelming influence of ‘western’ culture, the status of woman began to change and develop for the better. Today, women have nearly equal opportunities as men and are treated much better than their forebears. They are not looked on any more as merely child bearers, homemakers and the like, but are seen in multiple roles as mother, wife and worker. This however, is not universally the case. In certain backward regions of the country or in hardcore orthodox families, the woman is still looked down upon. Nonetheless, women have happily severed the shackles imposed on them and have emerged as co-partners with men.
Women share with men the task of work. They always have. But somewhere along the way, for some trivial reason, the nature of work of men and women was distinguished and codified to the detriment of the women. However, with development, mindsets changed and women are now seen very often, as equals to men, at least in the corporate sector. While the opportunities are equally available, the challenges that women face, especially in our country are far greater than those that men do. In this essay, I will present some of the challenges that working women face in India. I do not claim to cover all the challenges but seek to present at least the most evident and significant ones.
Women employees in general, are not taken very seriously by their superiors, colleagues, or society at large. They are seen as less intelligent perhaps, or if they are sufficiently qualified, then some other trifle serves to denigrate them. Having a career poses a challenge for women due to their family responsibilities. Traditionally Indian women were seen merely as home makers but in the recent decades, proper education and better awareness, in addition to the ever increasing cost of living has encouraged them to go out and pursue careers. In a patriarchal society like India it is still believed that a man is the primary bread winner of his family. Although Indian women have started working outside their homes, they still have a long way to go culturally, socially and economically, to bring in positive attitudinal changes in the mind-sets of people.
It is generally perceived that gender bias against working women starts right from the stage of recruitment. Most Indian men are not ready to accept that women are capable enough to work, other than in the teaching, nursing and clerical sectors. Their capabilities are generally underestimated as a result of which Indian women have a tendency to opt for less demanding jobs even if they are highly qualified. Women have to juggle between their multiple roles and this can be quite stressing. Men generally do not offer any help in the household work and this means that the burden of household duties is added to the workplace duties of a woman. This makes the life of working women extremely stressful. It takes a toll on their physical, emotional and psychological health.
One of the major reasons for women’s work becoming increasingly limited to the unorganized sector is that women lack the opportunity to acquire skills and training which could facilitate occupational shifts. This is related to the prevailing social relations between men and women as well as the structure of the economy. Since women have to bear the major burden of domestic chores, which in a poor household is time consuming and labour intensive, they do not have the time and opportunity to acquire skills and training for better jobs. Low skill attainment among women and their consequent relegation to jobs which are labour intensive, time consuming and arduous, is perpetrated by their unequal access to technology.
Women are denied rights such as minimum hours and minimum wages, and access to maternity benefits, maternal health care, day care and legal aid. There are a number of areas in which women receive no social security benefits. These factors together contribute to the insecurity of women and reinforce their inferior status as workers. Thus, a combination of social and economic factors are responsible for the low participation rate of women. The most critical are: (I) Segmentation in the labour market which works against women; (ii) Adverse implications of technological growth for women; (iii) Lack of unionization of female workers; (iv) Absence of a purposeful human resource development policy aimed at improving women’s employability and productivity through training; and (v) Conceptual ambiguities and lack of a National Labour Policy encompassing workers in the unorganized sector.
A working woman has to combine her domestic and official obligations so as to ensure as viable a counterpoise as possible. She faces family pressures in addition to workplace and other social pressures. Striking a healthy balance between work and domestic life is key for a woman. She often has to work harder to achieve the same rewards as a man. Life for a working woman in India is not easy. In the cities, qualification and merit are taken in to consideration with regard to payment and promotion. Of course, this is not always the case. But in villages, discrimination against women is still widespread. A highly qualified woman would still be considered and treated lower than her male counterpart, even though she outshines or is more qualified than him. If a woman takes up a leadership role in the village, she will be subject to more abuse and pressure than a man would be subject too. These few examples indicate the difficulty women face in the villages. Even though I have said that in the cities merit and qualification are considered, the picture is not as rosy as the statement may make it out to be. In the cities, women may not face explicit discrimination, but insidious forces are implicitly at work.
Women may lack in physical capacity vis-à-vis men but in all other respects they are equal to men. There is no basis for discrimination and equal rights and dignity is due to them. Irrespective of all socially constructed distinctions, women and men ought to be given an equal footing in the workplace. Critics of women workers will find strong testimony of the capability of women to handle both work and home life by simply making a phenomenological observation or study. There is no excuse for discriminating against women. The law has been revised to that end. Women can claim equal rights and fair treatment but the daunting challenges they face remain. Unless and until society, nay each individual has a change of attitude, women will continue to be ‘weaker sex’. Utopia is not on the horizon but change is.