How do we make workplace a conducive place for women with children just as it is for men with children?

by Elara Mehta

Rose Alley, April, 2016 —

” I’m XYZ from city ZYX . I have a Bachelors in XYZ . My father is in ABC profession and my mother is a homemaker. I have an older/younger sibling who is married/pursuing MBA/IT etc “

These lines have one very clear underlining social makeup – a mother who is a homemaker, a father who is the main breadwinner and siblings settled in a job or married providing a snapshot of the respectable family.

Never have I ever heard the lines “my mother is a CEO of a company or a business person or scientist or even a musician ” or anything which remotely hints at a woman’s success outside of her ability to raise a family. The traditional gender roles are never more striking.

It’s 2016 and if we go by the predictions the world is facing the threat of extinction and a life as we know. Yet we continue with the age old gender roles and women are still sacrificing themselves at the alter of traditional roles defined for them.

The checklist for women’s requirements has only increased with time – she should cook three meals a day, work stringent ridgid work schedules, keep the family together, raise children appropriately, keep the husband happy and fulfill all social responsibilities on special occasions, festivals and as per family needs.

With the added burden of being a superwoman, the companies also have laws which are not friendly to working women or women who took a sabbatical till children started kindergarten. A 2013 survey found that mothers were much more likely than fathers to report experiencing significant career interruptions in order to attend to their families’ needs. Part of this is due to the fact that gender roles are lagging behind labor force trends and the other half is the company policies and wages.

Combine these two and in US alone, approximately 43% women quit jobs to raise family. These numbers are much higher for countries less liberal than US like in Asia. According to a 2013 World Bank study, only 27% of the female population aged over 15 is working in India. This is the lowest rate of women’s participation in any workforce among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, with the highest in China at 64%.

Even if women did not want to quit jobs, the lack of flexibility or benefits lead to it. In my career, I have seen at least two instances where women on maternity were rated low for their annual review as “they were away” and hence paid less too. The other instance is that companies begrudge women who have children and treat them as a unproductive overhead. In fact, Michelle Budig at University of Massachusetts finds that on average, an American woman’s earning decreases by 4% per child she bears, contrasted by the parallel finding that a man’s earning increases by 6% per child he has.


Researchers find fathers are more likely to be hired and promoted – the label of “father” does project an image of a responsible, hardworking and mature man ready to work long hours to support his family, with the most ideal scenario that a full-time housewife is silently supporting him.

Women’s peak childbearing years and earning years are the same, unlike men who reach their peak earning years even after 40. This impacts their growth and eventually, there is always an underlying pressure on women to choose career or family. This is hurting not just women but the economy.

So how do we bring women back to work? How do we make workplace a conducive place for women with children just as it is for men with children? This maybe easier said than done as not everyone is culturally from the same background. On one hand, it’s cultural. Asian women, particularly, find it harder to leave the home behind due to a culture which traditionally assigns the role of homemaker and caretaker to a woman. Even though there are women who join work, they have jobs not careers.

On the other hand, it is systemic. In US, the law forbids children under 8-14 (varies by state) to be left home alone. This leaves parents with only two choices: one of them become full-time parent (usually the woman), or hire a nanny/baby sitter at the cost that is as high as one person’s after-tax income. Usually a middle class family would feel obligated to choose the former, and it makes a woman perceived as irresponsible if she refuses to sacrifice her career for children and family. This is a perfect example illustrating that even though almost the entire world is raving about the concept of gender equality, the system firmly works against it.

Paulette Light writes in The Atlantic, “If you want high-achieving mothers back in the workforce, don’t give us an office and a work week filled with facetime, give us something to get done and tell us when you need it by. This is where Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues are in a real position to make a tangible difference to us 43 percent”.