This article was published in an edited form for IEEE PICT’s WIE section.
“Because I believe that deep down in woman’s nature lies slumbering the spirit of revolt.
Because I believe that woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by
motherhood and its present necessary child rearing, by wage-slavery, by middle-class
morality, by customs, laws and superstitions.
Because I believe woman’s freedom depends upon awakening that spirit of revolt within her against these things that enslave her.
Because I believe that these things which enslave woman must be fought openly, fearlessly, consciously.”
This manifesto, “Why the Woman Rebel,” was written by Margaret Sanger, an American suffragette, in her magazine Woman Rebel in March 19141.
As women engineers more than a century later, we have come to take many rights for granted, we have been fortunate enough to live off the hard-won freedoms earned by our female, and some male, ancestors around the world. Even then, the first time I read them, Sanger’s words resonated with me. As I read the lines, again, and then again, I realized that very little of what she sought has truly, in absolute certainty, become a reality for us.
One of Sanger’s life-long goals was to ensure women weren’t staying limited by motherhood. Today, we are at a time in history where we can claim that many women in India are part of the workforce and mothers at the same time, particularly in rural areas2. According to the National Sample Survey (68th Round) of 2011-12, 24.8% of rural women were part of the labor force, as opposed to 54.3% of men. In urban areas that number fell to a measly 14.7% as opposed to 54.6% employment for men. Yet, the bigger concern is that the rate of female employment in India is falling. India’s female labor force has fallen from 31% in 2004 to 24% in 2011 according to a New York Times Op-Ed in 20153. India ranks as 11th from the bottom in female labor-force participation as published by the International Labor Organization.
The first pertinent question to ask is whether women engineers in India are following a similar path as the national trend. The answer is not a straightforward yes or no. Young women constitute 40% of the developer work force in Bengaluru4, which sounds great considering only 17% of Google engineers are women. Unfortunately, for Indian women over 35, that number drops to 18%. In fact, the number of unemployed women engineers in India is 40%5. Essentially, what we’re seeing is that while women are entering the workforce at a young age, the numbers dwindle as they grow older.
The next question then, following the same line of thought, is what changes as women engineers grow older? Why do we see fewer and fewer women at the top to the extent that when it comes to having at least one woman in the boardroom, most corporations in India struggled to find even one6? Diksha Madhok, writing for Quartz India, finds that it is, indeed, motherhood. Marriage is not a barrier as much as childbirth. Lack of adequate childcare options, flex work policies like work-from-home and demanding work hours leave many women engineers without the means to compete in an aggressive work environment in India. Several of the women Madhok spoke with said they found it easier to pursue their career abroad despite having kids, as compared to in India.
The evidence trail points clearly to the fact that in India, at least, Sanger’s most prominent fight, “Because I believe that woman is enslaved… by motherhood and its present necessary child rearing…” is a fight even the most paid Indian women — women engineers — have not won. Not only have we not won that fight, but we are steadily losing, particularly because wage parity and career growth are equally impacted by our inability to escape the motherhood barrier.
How we choose to overcome this pitfall depends on how women already in the workforce choose to engage with the problem. But an equally large onus falls on young engineers, both men and women in engineering schools that are poised to enter the workforce. Instead of becoming a part of the problem and proliferating it, how can we change the conversation around motherhood in India?
Having worked in India and abroad, I can speak to what I think might be one way of addressing the problem, though I neither claim it to be the only way nor the best.
I could write about major systemic barriers to mothers in the workforce, such as lack of adequate nursing and childcare facilities in corporations, which are abundant in the United States, or lack of reliable nannies with whom you can leave your child, or even that an average work day in India is almost double that of most developed nations. But I won’t. If any women executives are reading this, however, I’d urge them to think about making the workplace amenable to employees who are also mothers, if for nothing else, but that women who find better childcare at work are more likely to be productive at work7. This is a big part of the problem in and of itself, I am not going to let corporations off the hook, but as young engineers, these are problems quite out of our purview and reach for now.
What I would like to focus on, instead, is how we and the societal institutions we surround ourselves with, or even glorify, become the biggest barrier to our own growth and how we can prevent ourselves from falling behind. This includes adhering to traditional gender roles and sticking to designated divisions of labor within our family structures. which are often attributed as being too male or too female. It also includes the way we were raised to see certain tasks as female such as household chores, providing care to the elderly, or maintaining social relationships, all of which take immense effort and time, especially when combined with expected behavioral norms. Another common societal expectation in the case of women is to put the honor and the physical wellbeing of a family before oneself. By themselves, these constructs can impact a woman engineer’s confidence to excel, but in the context of child rearing, these can amount to the death knell for women engineers.
I am going to start with my strong aversion to the word motherhood alone, taken in context of child rearing. I prefer parenthood instead, which makes child rearing a joint responsibility of both parents. For many women in India, whether or not we were ourselves raised to believe that marriage and motherhood make our lives a success, the de facto, widely-held belief is that raising a child is best done by women, and men are generally considered useless, not just around children but even around the house. The argument we often hear, perpetuated by the privilege enjoyed by men, is that it is “natural” for women to do so. I scoff at that argument, however, because it is also “natural” for humans to go to bed at sunset like other mammals, but here we are at engineering jobs that require us to work 16-hour-days at all sorts of times and across multiple time zones.
Many Indian women my age in technology, or otherwise, continue to find it odd when their husbands or partners contribute toward household chores, or help with the baby. Changing that conversation is a huge part of furthering women’s careers. I find these notions to be not only archaic, but ridiculous from a mathematical perspective. When a woman becomes a mother, she alone is expected to not only do her 16-hour day job, but also come home and tend to the baby, the home and fulfill other social commitments. That’s a 28-hour job on the whole, an impossibility. Our solution to that is, free up her 16 hours or cut it down to 8, and she’ll have the whole day to be a mom. Instead, all we have to do, is trim our commitments and share the remaining hours of housework and child rearing between two people. That is what you would do at work too, wouldn’t you? If your deadline demands 28 people-hours in a day, you put two resources on the job. Why does this have to be different?
Perhaps, because in India, and truly, in many parts of the world, we continue to see care-giving as an economically unproductive activity. We are not only steeped in gender stereotypes that deem men as primary breadwinners in our country, we also neglect to attribute any true economic value to child rearing or home keeping. There lies our second problem, one that young engineers can actively seek to diminish. If each of us, men and women, began to account for activities at home, activities that involve care-giving, be it caring for an elderly parent or for a child, as part of our daily responsibilities that have economic value, we would all be a lot more comfortable adjusting to parenthood as a family and as a society, instead of letting one half of our population bear the brunt of a societal need. Think of it as social responsibility at home, just as we all partake in corporate social responsibility as part of our day jobs.
To return to Sanger’s dream, parenthood need not be an enslavement for women in engineering. It need not limit a woman’s career progress, simply because the job of child bearing biologically falls to her. But in order to ensure our progress and growth remain unhindered, we must accept parenthood as a joint social responsibility within our familial constructs. A decade from today, when we reach the upper rungs of corporate India, after weathering undue criticism, gender bias and discrimination, which of course continue to exist, we can start making the future workplace friendlier to our next-gen women engineers.
- Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Vintage Books, July 2015.
- Women in the labor force, India; Catalyst, June 2017, http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-labour-force-india
- Rohini Pande & Charity Troyer Moore, Why aren’t India’s Women Working, New York Times, Aug. 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/why-arent-indias-women-working.html?mcubz=0&_r=0
- Mohit M.Rao, 40% of young engineers in Bengaluru are women, The Hindu, Jan. 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/40-of-young-engineers-in-Bengaluru-are-women/article13993936.ece
- Cinthya Anand, Number of Unemployed women engineers in India is as high as 40%, The Hindu, Aug. 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/Number-of-unemployed-women-engineers-in-India-is-as-high-as-40/article14590448.ece
- Diksha Madhok, What happened to the women who graduated from IITs in the 90s?, Quartz India, June 2015, https://qz.com/424276/what-happened-to-the-women-who-graduated-from-iits-in-the-90s/
- Patricia S. Reed and Shirley M. Clark, Win-Win Workplace Practices: Improved Organizational Results and Improved Quality of Life (n.p.: September 2004). [A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau.] http://choose2lead.org/Publications/Study%20on%20Win-Win%20Workplace%20Practices.pdf