If I told you that between 2010 and 2020, the number of working women in India dropped from 26 percent to 19 percent and that by 2022 the number has fallen to an abysmal 9 percent, would you believe me?
The above-mentioned data has been compiled by World Bank and presents the stark and shameful truth of the state of women in labour in India. But is this because, to paraphrase Kim Kardashian’s contentious quote from her Variety interview, nobody seems to want to work these days? Or is it the systemic patriarchal oppression in play behind this drastic exodus of women from workplaces in the country? And why are more people not talking about this?
The last question is exactly what led filmmaker Christina MacGillivray down a rabbit hole of alarming statistics pointing towards the devastating impact of women dropping out of the workforce on the economy and so much more. “It was around 2018 when I first read about this crazy phenomenon that was happening with women dropping out of the workforce. The Economist did a cover story about it too and it was something like the percentage of women working in India was dropping so quickly that, at that moment, Saudi Arabia had a higher percentage of women working than India. I thought to myself ‘Whoa! There’s no way that this is happening’.” At this point, Macgillivray had been living in Delhi for the past decade, “I’m a big nerd, so I started reading up about this and spent the next week asking everyone around me, whether I was at a coffee shop or dinner or a meeting if they’ve heard about this thing with women dropping out of the workforce. Everyone denied knowing and believing that this was happening. I realised that there is this really interesting conversation to be had between what the data was saying, that millions of women are disappearing from the workforce and that on the ground, none of us really believed that it was happening or saw that it was happening.”
This is when MacGillivray and fellow compatriot Laura Quinn (who had been living in the capital city for the past eight years), started conceptualising the idea that eventually became the podcast Women in Labour. “We sketched the idea of this podcast on the back of a napkin in a bar in China Town! But we knew that as soon as you said ‘women labour force participation rates’ half of the audience has already fallen asleep. We wanted to make it more fun and have it on women’s radar so that we can start this conversation and open it up to a wider audience than just people who were already reading about female workforce participation rates. So that’s when I eventually roped Aditi (Mittal) into this.”
One of India’s top comedians, Mittal acknowledges the fact that the subject was wildly out of her purview, but MacGillivray’s persistence in bringing her on board (“It had to be Aditi and nobody else”, she tells me) finally convinced her to join the project, albeit after a few initial missteps. “When Christina first sent me a message, and as you can tell she is a physically attractive human being, her display picture was her looking like a model. She had sent me a message, that by the way went to my Facebook Others folder, that said ‘Hey, you wanna talk about women at work?’. I was sure that this is some dude who has stolen a photo of a pretty lady from the Internet and is now trolling me for being unemployed and I was sure that the next statement would be ‘Go to the kitchen’ or something like that. I didn’t respond because it was one of those rare days where I actually had work. Then a week later, I get a mail in my inbox from a person, with the same DP as that Facebook message sender, that said that they want to talk about women in labour.”
According to Mittal, the mail had the first eight episodes planned out meticulously, with all the research done and articles hyperlinked. “She had already done everything, short of actually recording the episodes. So when she asked me if I wanted to do this, I was perplexed and was like ‘You’ve done everything already, what will I say?’. At this point, I just had to show up.”
MacGillivray immediately sets the record straight, “(Mittal) has been wildly modest about her involvement with the first season of the podcast. We sat down together when we were planning the first season and basically broke it down. She and I would sit in cafes, and wherever we could, and think about why could this be happening, is it our public spaces? Is it power dynamics? Is it marriage? Is it education? We almost constructed season one asking what are all these reasons that this could happen and if we could have anyone who could speak about all these questions that we had, who would it be? So she contributed significantly to the creation of this podcast.”
The podcast, which launched its second season towards the end of July, was started back in March 2020, and has effectively managed to trace the devastating fall in numbers of women in workplace that was one of the effects of the pandemic (amongst other things). MacGillivray admits that the first season of the podcast was fully about investigating and discovering facts about the situation and educating themselves on the various intersectional factors that informed most Indian women’s decisions to drop out of the workforce. When asked about their top learnings from the first season, Mittal reveals something that was shocking, mainly because it has been staring us in the face all this while without us realising just how deep the problem went, “My number one learning, after everything we did, was that our questions about ‘Is it birth? Is it because there are not enough women being born? Or is it because of education? Is it because of sexual harassment in workplaces?’ were all a waste. Turns out, the number one reason why women are dropping out of the workforce in such great numbers is that men are not helping out at home.”
Mittal continues, “Women who want to go out and work still have to come back and work a full-time job at home. They have to take care of the family, they have to manage the household. The statistic that blew my mind is that the average Indian woman does six hours of unpaid labour every day, while the average Indian man does about 35-48 minutes of unpaid labour every day. It is crazy to me that the difference is so stark.”
According to MacGillivray’s research, if men are able to contribute just two more hours in taking care of the household, something that usually falls on the woman, we can see a 20 percent jump in the participation of women in the workforce.
“To me, that statistic and the fact that it all boiled down to launde kaam nahi kar rahe [men are not helping out at home] was baffling. What is the cost of the economy? To get your chaddis [underwwears] washed by someone else? No! Go wash them yourself! Can you f*cking believe it? We were going after these intense and deep sociological reasons and it ultimately came down to men not wanting to wash their own chaddis?”
Judging by the state I found myself in at the end of Mittal’s rant (anger and frustration rising at alarming levels), I was baffled at how the two hosts managed to find humour and the motivation to go on despite the bleak facts laid out in front of them. “That’s a great question. Hope is very important and central to everything. We wouldn’t be doing this podcast if we didn’t have hope. I think we give it to each other and the community that we’ve built. There are so many times when we’d read a statistic and both of us are stuck in silence for two full minutes and we’d think ‘Oh! Another uplifting statistic for women at work in India’. It’s through each other and it’s through understanding we’re not alone in this journey. And we also understood that this issue crosses all countries. Having these conversations makes us feel more hopeful and less alone.” MacGillivray recounts some of the responses that have stood out for her that reaffirmed her belief that this problem needs to get on women’s radar somehow, “What really touches our heart is when we get messages on social media from women, especially younger women, that say things like ‘I wasn’t going to apply to this internship because I didn’t feel confident enough but listening to the podcast made me realise that I need to put myself out there’. So the kind of messages where people tell us that they’re actively making changes in their life or taking decisions that they usually wouldn’t, really make our day.”
She also brings up something that Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh author, and a guest on season two of the podcast, Shrayana Bhattacharaya, said in the episode, “(Bhattacharya) said, ‘If you’re a woman at work, or even if you’re the first woman in your family to own a phone, and it makes you feel lonely, just know that what you’re doing is revolutionary. You are going to feel alone and isolated and it is going to get easier’.”
Mittal answers the question with disarming candour, “I think we owe it to the world to have hope, no? In terms of the things we’ve been born with, I’ve been very privileged and lucky. So we cannot lose hope, not just for us but for everyone else.”
You can listen to new episodes of Women In Labour podcast every Tuesday right here.