How to build a brave new world for the young, ambitious Indian woman 

Design a new world.
Design a new world.
Image: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
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An annual jobs fair has kicked off at India’s premier technology institutes. It is called the IIT placement season, and it is covered each year with intensity by Indian business newspapers vying to make the graduates appear like the world’s most coveted employees.

The eight-digit rupee salaries offered by multinationals are celebrated as proof of the country’s engineering talent. However, numbers can be deceptive.

The giddy news coverage hides some ugly realities about India’s top universities—most notably that these institutes, and the career success they promise, are almost exclusively designed for men.

At many IITs, women account for less than 10% of the student population at the undergraduate level, and the imbalance won’t abate anytime soon. And this manifests in the nature of India’s labor force.

A historic low

Three out of four Indian women of working age are either not working or not seeking work, as Chennai-based journalist Rukmini S noted in Livemint in June. That puts the Indian female labor participation rate at a historic low, in one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. Just nine countries, including Syria and Yemen, have a smaller proportion of working women.

“Attending to domestic duties” is the primary reason cited by women age 30 to 50 for not being part of the workforce. And when they are employed, they often have to put in longer working hours for lesser pay than the men.

From cajoling or shaming men into helping with housework, to benefits like longer maternity leaves, nothing seems to be keeping enough Indian women in the professional world.

It’s time we admit it: The piecemeal approach simply isn’t working. We are building a nation where only one half of the population is benefitting. Every year, there are millions of smart, ambitious women whose dreams of building meaningful careers are squashed by marriage, motherhood, unsafe cities, and unequal opportunities at work.

Maybe it is time to stop chipping away at this problem and do something extraordinary. Perhaps it is time for Indian employers to think outside the box to make their offices more inclusive.

Following are some new approaches to work, suggested by top thinkers or employers around the world. A few of their ideas have been put into practice on a small scale, often with success. Others will take far more societal fortitude, and sweeping structural change, to implement.

Don’t start working full time until age 40

“There are three times when a woman decides to leave her career,” Arundhati Bhattacharya, former chairman of the State Bank of India, said in October at the India Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum in New Delhi.

The first common departure point is during the childbearing years. The second, she said, comes when the child is preparing for exams in high school. “The third reason we found for women leaving is to take care of their parents or parents-in-law,” noted Bhattacharya, who is one of the few women to hold a top job in a male-dominated sector.

But what if women didn’t have to shove career and family obligations into a few short years where they’re simultaneously trying to climb the ladder and raise young children? As we live longer and healthier lives, what if full-time jobs began at 40 instead in of our early 20s?

This is a model suggested by psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, who says we have arranged our lives all wrong if we want to prioritize home life and work in a logical way. According to her, one’s 20s and 30s should be devoted to education, apprenticeships, and starting a family, instead of full-time work. She also suggests changing the retirement age to 80.

While implementing such a model would require reshaping some of our most deeply ingrained ideas about the work, it eliminates most of the reasons that hinder women from working. At the same time, it would benefit men as they, too, wouldn’t have to choose so often between family and career, or live life at an unsustainable pace.

End the work day at 3 pm

The afternoon cutoff is what Wharton professor Adam Grant suggested in 2018 to make lives easier for parents with school-going children. While it may sound impractical, several industries have already recognized that long working hours is one of the main reasons women opt out of the workforce, even after they’ve invested in their education or acquired the right skills.

In India, many women refrain from joining well-paying industries such as consulting or investment banking due to an unpredictable work schedule or predictably long hours that make it difficult to manage a family. It’s a worldwide problem, really. But millennials in the US have been making headway in securing greater flexibility from major employers, and a nascent campaign to implement a four-day work week has found traction at companies in New Zealand, Ireland, and elsewhere. Microsoft tested a four-day week in Japan and discovered that working fewer hours is actually good for productivity.

There’s no reason Indian companies couldn’t consider the same kinds of reforms—while also addressing its more unique roadblocks for women, such as a shortage of safe transportation options after late nights in the office.

Work six years and take the seventh off

A little-known feature about the Ten Commandments is that ancient Israelites were supposed to take not just one day of rest per week, but one whole year out of every seven. How about applying this spiritual practice from the second millennium BC to modern work, asks entrepreneur Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

In India, sabbatical years are often frowned upon, fit only for the rich and pampered. But regular sabbaticals would not only allow for much-needed soul-searching or a chance at re-skilling; they also would give parents time to focus on their children when they need to most.

Whether we have kids or not, sabbaticals can give us time to take stock, reinvent ourselves, properly tend to our priorities outside the office, and come back to work stronger and happier.

Learn from Stephen Colbert

In 2018, the host of CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert took an extraordinary step to fix the gender ratio in his writer’s room: He started looking at resumes only from women.

We would say, you know, it’s very important, we want writers of color, we want women, and you would get 150 packets and there would be eight women. And we’re like, ‘God, that’s so frustrating.’ Until I said, ‘No, only women’—then I got 87 women. And I thought, ‘Where were these people before?’ And that was sort of the realization of my naiveté, that it’s not enough to say you want it, you have to go to the not-ordinary step.

Given the paucity of women at the IITs, it’s difficult—but still exciting—to imagine a top employer arriving on campus and insisting on interviewing only female engineers.

Until we are ready to take bold steps like these, it seems we will continue to live in an India where the most coveted jobs go mainly to men.

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