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Kerala must prioritise a gender policy audit

Overcoming gender stereotyping requires a concerted effort to shift societal perceptions, offering women the space to pursue personal and career aspirations freely
Last Updated : 29 February 2024, 05:31 IST
Last Updated : 29 February 2024, 05:31 IST

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Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's February 22 call for a gender audit has reignited the conversation on women's labour participation, and the pay gap.

The Kerala government's move to conduct a gender pay gap audit is a positive thought process. However, the priority should be to conduct a gender policy audit to expose the restrictions and limitations prescribed to women from entering or serving many professions on their own choices to negotiate and earn more.

Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin, recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics for her contributions to gender pay gap studies, has emphasised that more research studies need to be conducted to understand the social, cultural, and economic factors influencing the gender gap. While equal pay is a consensus in policy circles, a deeper understanding of formal and informal job types, historical context, occupational segregation, biases, education levels, and societal power structures is crucial for a meaningful discussion. Unfortunately, such comprehensive studies are not widely available in India's diverse societies.

The societal landscape for women has undergone profound changes in the last 70 years, particularly in the context of migration to metropolitan areas. Contrasting with the 1950s, when women faced restrictions on leaving their homes for education, today's scenario reflects visible shifts in many Indian states. Despite progress, many girls lack access to basic education, and the birth of girl children is still met with unwelcome sentiments in various regions. The disparities between urban and rural environments and the distinctions between informal and formal employment further compound this issue.

Even in Kerala, which is regarded as an educated and literate state, societal norms remain deeply rooted in patriarchy. Women continue to bear the primary responsibility for family upkeep and childcare. The prevailing expectation is for women to interrupt their careers to attend to familial duties. While studies indicate that women in Kerala are well-equipped to enter the job market, the actual labour participation rate is hindered by the absence of adequate support systems such as affordable and accessible creches and daycare centres near worksites. This disparity underscores women's persistent challenges in achieving full integration into the workforce, even in regions with higher educational attainment.

The challenge is exacerbated by entrenched patriarchal norms that require dismantling through awareness campaigns starting at the school level. Political representation and leadership positions continue to be predominantly occupied by men, including those who espouse gender parity. The historic migration to West Asia from the state has also often left women solely responsible for family care.

Even within trade unions, male leaders have historically taken the forefront, conveniently sidelining pay parity concerns. Moreover, until recent times, domestic chores performed by women have been overlooked and excluded from gender equity discussions within various political movements. All these dynamics have left a lasting impression on Kerala's social and cultural milieu.

Overcoming gender stereotyping requires a concerted effort to shift societal perceptions, offering women the space to pursue personal and career aspirations freely. Challenging and dismantling gender roles is crucial to creating an environment where women can fully realise their potential. Studies in the Western context reveal that low pay for women workers is prevalent in sectors where more women are traditionally employed, such as agriculture or nursing. Contrary to expectations, there is a lack of a direct correlation between education and pay parity.

The labour market has seen improvements in conditions and pay, but the 'motherhood penalty' leads to women falling behind in their careers, particularly between the ages of 24 and 35. In contrast, fatherhood often results in men earning more, as it does not significantly affect their availability and productivity. Formal institutions have initiated steps to support women's career progression, but the effectiveness of these initiatives depends on various social factors, as mentioned above.

In most cases, women lack role models at the top level as there is a struggle to access the leadership levels when their careers are interrupted intermittently after childbirth. A transformative shift could occur if women break into traditionally male-dominated professions.

The governments should conduct a comprehensive policy audit across various sectors to enact necessary changes aimed at fostering gender equality in workplaces. Initiatives such as recruiting women into traditionally male-dominated roles such as the police force, eliminating night work shift bans for women in sectors such as shops and factories, and investing in the skill development of women to enhance their competitiveness in the workforce etc are a few examples of the crucial components of this strategy.

Furthermore, enhancements to public transport systems are essential to ensure easy, safe, and affordable access for women. Recognising that women often require greater flexibility in their work environments, efforts should be made to offer cost-effective options that accommodate this need. It's essential to view gender equality as a multifaceted issue where the overall ecosystem plays a pivotal role.

While well-intentioned, broad government interventions may not always yield the desired outcomes and could defeat the purpose of bringing such a public policy. Especially in the state of Kerala, which is characterised by relatively low wages across genders, it introduces a unique challenge due to the scarcity of higher-paying job opportunities. This can inadvertently further sideline women.

The effectiveness of policy changes in promoting gender equity hinges on expanding opportunities for women across a broader spectrum of professions. Removing restrictions on working hours and occupational choices is paramount to fostering gender inclusivity from the outset. Additionally, a key focus should be on promoting education and skills development among women, empowering them to actively negotiate wages and compete on a level playing field. It is crucial to recognise that achieving gender equity extends beyond government intervention. Addressing social norms and innovating workspace strategies are key to lasting improvements and better wages for women.

(D Dhanuraj is Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 29 February 2024, 05:31 IST

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