Musings Post Another International Women’s Day

By Lipika Dey

Photo: Levi Guzman

We have left behind another March with a series of events celebrating yet another ‘International Women’s Day’. Admittedly, over the years, we have moved beyond ‘celebration of womanhood’ on this day with huge discounts on dress, cosmetics, parlours or restaurants to engaging in more meaningful discourses. It’s also not about “beauty with brains.” Hopefully, these discourses are inching us towards understanding “equity” better today and thereby move towards our dream of “equality.”

I was lucky to be part of a panel discussion at IIT Jodhpur that focused on the theme of “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, that was announced by United Nations (UN) to recognize and celebrate the women and girls who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital education. This prodded me to dig up some data, which I will be talking about later.

I was also a part of another panel that discussed and debated about the future of AI, as Large Language Models continue to captivate the imagination of AI and social scientists all around the world. In yet another panel however, we were back to discussing how to encourage women to manage it all – with young women asking ‘How do we take that crucial decision of continuing to work – when faced with the challenge of attending to a family with small children and old parents along with the challenge of high-profile jobs that require managing a whole lot of resources to ensure quality delivery on time?’

We try to do our bit by sharing our stories – of struggles and successes, of downs and ups. Maybe we succeed in retaining a few of them back in the workforce. But how many?

As a data scientist, the facts and figures that I dug up for the first panel are highly distressing. According to statistics published by International Labour Organization (ILO), the economically active female workforce in India was down to 19.3 percent in 2021, (from 22.2 % in 2014), and we are currently below UAE, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. In 2021, women’s contribution to India’s GDP was a mere 18%, while in China, women contributed 41% to the GDP.

A detailed survey to identify the reasons for this dwindling trend reveals that the top reason for urban Indian women to drop out of work after marriage is due to “difficulty in balancing household responsibilities and paid-work along with arduous commutes”. This is sad.

The above statistics is for the entire workforce of women in the country. That women in STEM do not have very different statistics to reveal is borne out by the fact that there is still a severe shortage of women in senior management in these areas also. This is despite the fact that at around 49%, the percentage of girls opting for STEM subjects in India is possibly the largest in the world. The numbers are also depressing when we think about so many outstanding Indian women CEOs, CTOs, scientists, social scientists, historians, bankers and economists who have made the country proud.

Clearly, the bottleneck of crossing that point from the entry level to the mid-layer executive not only remains, but has become worse over the years, for Indian women. It is a time when they get sandwiched between childcare, elderly care and workplace responsibilities. It is clear that unlike the earlier generation, more women of the new generation are opting for the exit to maintain peace and balance. It is also equally clear that in all these years, while we have seen several schemes being implemented to educate and encourage girls and women to work, the societal mindset and the lack of infrastructure have remained unchanged, thereby nullifying the intent of the schemes. While we do have more women educated in specialised areas and they are also entering the workforce, clearly by not being able to retain them, we are going through a new form of brain-drain.

In a report published in December 2022, CII also points out this lapse and emphasises on the need for policy changes. It states that “The way to enhance women’s economic empowerment is not just by increasing female employment opportunities, but also reducing the double shift burden women face. There is a need for adoption of the 3 Rs approach, which involves Recognising, Reducing and Redistributing the unpaid care work done by women in all areas of policy-making.” It also goes on to state that public investment of just 2% of India’s GDP in the care economy can generate 11 million jobs and improve economic and social support for women to venture out into formal work. This indeed is encouraging.

However, policies alone cannot change a society. Bringing in behavioural changes are a must. It’s high time we all recognize that running a family should not be solely women’s responsibility. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old – all should have equally important roles to play in the smooth running of their household. This has to be enforced through primary and secondary education. This has to be practised at home. This has to be believed by one and all.

Women also have to come out of the mindset that the easiest way to handle the multiple challenges of life is to axe one of them by dropping out from the organised sector. They also have a responsibility towards the education that they have received from their Alma Mater, the training they have received from their organisations and most importantly their innate talent. Unfortunately, belief in one’s own capability is not a point where women score high. Women also tend to belittle their achievements. They tend to underplay their own successes. This reflects in their decision making. They allow themselves to be “controlled” by other factors rather than be guided by their own choices.

Our society, which brings up women to be “good girls first” also has a lot to contribute towards this. In a recent workshop where I discussed my own journey as a scientist, daughter, wife and a mother – I talked about the need to “speak”, “protest”, “nudge” or “demand” as situations called for, whether it is at home, at the workplace, in public places or in private lives.

When I say “protest” or “speak” – I don’t restrict myself to the topic of gender discrimination only. I simply mean that we have to make ourselves heard, undaunted by the fact that very often women are severely outnumbered by men in the meetings, and therefore stand a chance of being “marked” for their words. A few young research scholars approached me after the talk and said, “We have been brought up to be good girls – obedient and compliant. How can we do this?”

This is a practical problem. That’s why we still need to have these discussions. The only way I can help is by assuring them and proving to them that there is indeed a way to do all of those and still be good. It has to be learnt and like all other skills, honed through practice. According to me, it’s also the only way to bring about a change. No one is going to dish out equity on a platter.

Challenges have to be faced with courage. Things can only change if women internalize the fact that financial independence is not an option for them, but mandatory for a dignified existence.

Author Dr. Lipika Dey is a Chief Scientist at TCS Research, working in the area of Natural Language Processing and Data Analytics. She is also a visiting faculty at IIT Jodhpur. Prior to joining TCS, she was a faculty in the Department of Mathematics at IIT, Delhi. Lipika has been a champion of diversity for several years now, speaking and mentoring professionals through various platforms and forums. She has been in the committee of ACM-W, India, an organization that advocates for the full engagement of women in all aspects of computing field.