Saturday, March 15, 2014

Women, Wages and Work-Life Balance: The Financial Security Gap

Raakhee Suryaprakash

Image from here
With International Women’s Day just a week ago, I am still being bombarded with special “women only” offers. Yes for many of us shopping—online, roadside, or mall-hopping sessions—is a guilty pleasure and these offers are to lure us in and flash the magic wand that is our credit card (yes I’m channelling the Shopaholic) but what’s gotten me mad is the fact that when it comes to matters of finance, women are left trailing.

Yes I know that in all “joru ka ghulam[1] jokes it is the wife who is the finance minister of the house. And if you are to believe the Women’s Day special Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) Ads where women ranging from 20-34 years cite various “women-centric” reasons to be insured, then it must seem that women across the board are deeply involved in securing their financial future.
But hold on: the reality stinks!

An article in The Hindu’s Metro Plus section hooked me with the line “Money earned by a woman is still considered to be the icing on the cake and not the cake itself”. It was followed by the findings of a nationwide study by Flexi Careers India. The quote is attributed to human resources expert Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president, AVTAR Career Creators and Flexi Careers India. “VIEWPORT 2014 - Economic Centeredness of Women” surveyed 500 women across the country and found that while “88 per cent of the respondents said they had finances of their own and autonomy over spending it, only 8 per cent trusted themselves with investing money judiciously, women still considered the management and investment of money to be a male forte.” Maybe this is the reason all those insurance and bank cold calls I get ask to speak to sir or outright insult me further by asking whether they are speaking to Mr. Raakhee! This has happened to other working women I know who have well-known, distinctly female-sounding names!

Fathers were the primary role models for the women surveyed when it came to their attitude towards money. In this I differ from that survey set. I have strong female financial role models—my grandmother’s ace budgeting skills would have given any of the world’s Finance Ministers a run for their money. Although she never completed her schooling she brought up five children—on what seems to me a pittance—to become well-educated, financially secure adults. My mother, her eldest, is a doctor but her math and accounting skills leave my engineer father far behind. Thus I stand 100% with the result of the survey that the “secret to increasing workforce participation rate of women might lie not outside but within the woman’s own conditioning and self-beliefs.”

According to the UN report “Women in India—How Free? How Equal?” despite the Indian Constitution guaranteeing that there shall be no discrimination on the grounds of gender in reality women are poorer and rural women and women labourers are the poorest of them all: “Rural women have harder lives and are often discriminated against with regard to land and property rights, and in access to medical facilities and rural finance. Women undertake the more onerous tasks involved in the day-to-day running of households, including the collection of fuel-wood for cooking and the fetching of drinking water, and their nutritional status and literacy rates are lower than those of men. They also command lower wages as labour: as rural non-agricultural labourers, women earn 44 rupees per day compared to 67 rupees for men.”

Just as this women’s day bombarded me with offers it also bombarded me with surveys about women. Most having a rather cloudy outlook! If ASSOCHAM (Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry) came out with a survey finding that daily “multi-tasking” is taking a toll on women’s health (75% of 2,800 corporate women employees from 120 companies across 11 sectors had one or the other health problem. This survey was conducted in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, and Pune.) then this month’s Harvard Business Review article on a survey conducted by Harvard Business School students “shows that no matter how much power female executives have accrued, or how much lip service male executives might publicly pay, family issues are still seen as a female problem.”

Rebecca Traister of New Republic surmises that the “problem of not enough women in the upper echelons of business, tech, and politics,” isn’t because of either “women’s lack of ambition” or “lack of support at home.” The real problem is that all such conversations are targeted at women when the real issue is to “get men to acknowledge work-life conflicts as an everyone issue, not a women’s issue or a mom issue.”

I will end this harangue on a positive note. I will quote another Huffington Post article: “The greatest gift we can give other women, and subsequently ourselves, is our generous, open, cross-pollinated (online and offline) support of their endeavo[u]rs to achieve a true work/life balance and do something great; for themselves and for others.” For as multiple Oscar Winner Meryl Streep said "The greatest gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy."
1.      United Nations report: ‘Women in India - How free? How equal?’ Data on population and literacy are based on India Census 2001.
2.      “Workforce participation rate depends on women’s self-beliefs: survey,” M. Dinesh Varma, The Hindu, Metroplus, March 7, 2014;
3.      Men Still Think Work-Life Balance Is Only For Women: Study;
4.      The Real Gifts Female Entrepreneurs Need, Penina Rybak;
5.      “75 p.c. of working women have health problems:  Survey,” The Hindu, March 9, 2014, Sunday;

[1] Translates to an equivalent of “hen-pecked”