Varying social norms

Varying social norms


Varying social norms

Women in the IT industry rarely associate their agency as a purely individual project that is backed by a body of rights safeguarded by the State.

Several months ago, we argued that the movement of global capital had induced sweeping changes in spheres of production and employment in cities such as Bengaluru. Depending on the choice of metrics we employ, it may be possible, we argued, to find that global capital flows have indeed generated employment, raised incomes and reduced poverty. This line of argument seems to capture the simplistic logic of the deregulation discourse.

Bengaluru based academic Jyothsna Belliappa in her powerful new book, “Gender, Class and Reflexive Modernity”, however, provides a more nuanced discussion of the effects of de-regulation through her analysis of women’s employment in Bengaluru’s IT industry.

In doing so, her analysis underscores the importance of institutions (understood as rules) in shaping outcomes at the level of family, community and political life in emerging economies. The issue of dualism has long characterised debates about modernisation. Issues of first and third world, rich and poor and customary versus secular norms have come to define these debates.

However, what such analysis has failed to provide was a substantive articulation of the roles of gender and class and how they intersect to produce women’s interests. Gender, Class and Reflexive Modernity argues that women’s interests are heterogeneous. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, women in the IT industry rarely associate their agency as a purely individual project that is backed by a body of rights safeguarded by the State.

Quite to the contrary, employment in the high profile IT industry in Bengaluru actually resulted in women engaging in a collective enterprise by leveraging cultural codes to delicately negotiate with patriarchy on important decisions relating to expenditure and child rearing within households.

These changes in family life, one may argue, are an outcome of greater engagement with forces of globalisation. However, Belliappa’s work clearly shows that the burden of bringing about change at family, community and societal levels is disproportionately borne by women in many instances.

The neo-liberal discourse leads one to view emerging economies as being on a linear development trajectory that takes them away from use of ascriptive criteria based on birth and lineage towards one that emphasises the use of criteria such as merit and rational action.

However, women engaged in the IT industry are seldom in a position to make a clear cut choice with regards to adopting individualistic criteria based on merit and rational action. This is because of the levels of risk and uncertainty associated with outsourced jobs in the IT industry.

Employment of women in the IT industry has also put a spotlight on the tension that exists between individual and collective choice. It is important to recognise this tension since its resolution can potentially point towards effective ways in which state and non-state actors can intervene to design developmental interventions that address issues of equity in compensation and recruitment structures industry wide.

Technological advances may now make it possible for collaboration across countries and across time zones to occur.

The effects of gender and class are clearly evident here. For example, higher class women are in a better position to purchase care services that enables them to advance their careers within the IT industry.

Higher class women can also be in a position to draw upon their better command of English to secure promotions within the industry. One issue of critical importance to public policy then is, what kind of institutional arrangements may become necessary to address the consequences of freer flow of global capital?

For one, greater integration in the global economy induces higher costs evident from potential health consequences that are experienced at an individual level from working long hours.

Higher costs of living

But what about higher costs of living that rising wages can produce at the level of the city? The big welfare question is whether states can intervene to ensure that low paying jobs do not suffer from a gender bias. Further, can governments intervene to tax those with recourse to exponentially rising salaries with the objective of redistributing the proceeds in the form of improved public services?

Based on Brazilian experience, one is encouraged to inquire whether governments are within their right to intervene through use of fiscal instruments (such as cash on delivery) to encourage the private sector to participate in delivery of childcare services for working women from poorer families.

There are several important issues that are relevant to broader discussions on modernisation that further highlights the importance of addressing institutional concerns. For one, the neo-liberal discourse essentially points to the abrogation of the welfare function by states worldwide.

In this context, nevertheless, there are several issues that are influenced by the intersection of gender, class and ethnicity. These issues include worker rights, work-life balance, safety standards, minimum wage for both contract and non-contract staff and health care and insurance.

It is worth inquiring how institutions may be designed that ensure the proceeds of fiscal measures discussed in the previous paragraph can be harnessed to deliver critical services for working women that may take the form of day care for children, care for elderly and compensation packages that acknowledge over-time work.

The globalisation of capital has clearly had an effect on the ability of women to negotiate for their participation in the labour market. This trend has been supported in large measure by changes in social norms that had the additional effect of empowering women in their relations with in-laws and their spouses at home on account of their employment with the high-profile IT industry.

Future research that provides pointers to institutional design may go a long way in furthering the principle of inclusivity in the context of changes underway as a result of globalisation.

(The writer is with the United Nations University, Germany)

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