Well-Being//

As More Indian Women Juggle Home and Work Roles, Stress Is Becoming a Serious Issue

Tradition and aspiration are butting heads in India's boardrooms.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Nick Kenrick

A statistic that emerged from a 2011 Nielsen survey is being increasingly bandied about by experts and analysts mapping the role of women in the Indian workforce in 2017.

According to the survey, titled Women of Tomorrow, 87 percent of Indian women admitted to being stressed a majority of the time—something that can permeate all aspects of daily life.

The stress is magnified when you look at women working in India’s burgeoning corporate sector. It’s a fast-moving world, lacking consistent HR processes but brimming with passion for being at the vanguard of social development in an emerging market.

Experts who deconstructed the survey at the time pinned the cause of stress on the fact that, while women in India have benefitted from being able to choose their academic and career paths, many of them still bear the weight of being the consummate housewife and daughter.

Many women are still expected to run their households, and often the idea of leaving the home to work is considered more of a choice than a necessity. This makes women feel the burden of expectation and increased scrutiny all the more.

Tradition and Aspiration Lock Horns in the Boardroom

In 2014, India’s Securities and Exchange Board made it mandatory for all listed companies to appoint at least one woman director by March 2015. Many Indian companies have met the requirement.

In that same vein, according to the Credit Suisse Gender Report of 2016, the number of senior women managers in India (across 3,000 companies) has doubled over the past six years, from 5.5 percent in 2010 to 11.2 percent in 2015. The global average is 14.7 percent.

In spite of these strides in opening career opportunities to women, very few companies have taken into account the extra stress Indian women are under.

In India, men have traditionally been the breadwinners and women have kept the home. Working women often find themselves juggling both roles in a social arena that still has yet to fully comprehend the role of women in the workplace.

“Our research shows that over 80 percent of women want support systems that could help them navigate challenges at work and back home without them having to compromise on their career aspirations or losing their autonomy,” said Soujanya Vishwanath, co-founder of Pink Ladder, an organisation that looks to help women address challenges with their careers in the corporate sector. “But only 20 percent of organizations offer such support and that, too, is without a holistic and customised approach,” she said.

Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, executive director of RGF Executive Search, has spent decades in the corporate sector and said she believes that the intricate layers of Indian culture can sometimes be in tension with modern corporate philosophies.

“In India, it is rude for women to say no,” Chetty-Rajagopal said. While most people in the corporate sector acknowledge the presence of the additional layers of stress an Indian woman must deal with, few say they have a process to deal with it.

Chetty-Rajagopal said that women are often afraid to ask for things that could help them, like the ability to work from home, though she said that thanks to the increasing prevalence of the “Lean In” doctrine, a growing number of women are taking a stand and asking for the things they need to be successful at work and at home.

Chetty-Rajagopal said that change is afoot, and women of the millennial generation are going to have it a lot better in the corporate sector than the women who came before them.

For Indian Women, Home Is Not Always Where the Heart Is

The overriding opinion of those working in the corporate sector seems to be that while Indian women are more than capable of holding their own in industries still dominated by men, they are still under enormous pressure to perform traditional roles outside of the workplace as well.

“We have a number of women who will ask us in private what their options are when it comes to leaves and WFHs, but quickly end the conversation by saying they didn’t want their bosses [male or female] to know they were asking about it,” said one HR manager at a leading Indian biotechnology firm.

And while housemaids are common in India, they usually work for a few hours in the morning, leaving women to run the house after that. The job invariably involves cooking, taking care of the kids—and parents and in-laws in the case of joint families—and then getting prepped for the next day.

“A lot of them will work eight to nine hours a day and then go home to take care of a family. They have very little support at work, and even if they do, they rarely use it,” Chetty-Rajagopal said.

“Indian women should demand excellence from themselves,” said Chetty-Rajagopal, “but not of their Durga avatars.” Here, she alludes to the Hindu goddess with many arms, a deity able to perform multiple roles at the same time.

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