Why India’s most educated women are leaving jobs faster than others

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It was while working for a shopping website that Parul A Mittal, 43, discovered her calling as a writer. It was 2008. She had been working for 12 years, was at middle management level at her company and no reason to quit.
Except her younger daughter had just begun showing signs of a breathing problem, and Mittal was at that stage in her life where her husband was immersed in his job at a venture capital firm. “I used to feel mentally and physically exhausted all the time,” she said. It was at this time that Mittal wrote her first book, Heartbreaks & Dreams: The Girls@IIT.
With a degree in electrical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Mittal had tried it all–part-time hours, freelancing, a sabbatical. For a while she even ran a parenting website, but shut it down in 2016 when it reached a point where ‘you take funding and scale it’ or close shop.
Still, she didn’t give up on the tech sector until earlier this year with her last job at a travel portal in a ‘pretty senior role’ as the only woman vice president in the company. With it came not just the office politics but a requirement to commit herself to the job 24×7. Even that might have been tolerable.
The deal-breaker, however, was the office culture where the other staff seemed happy to stay on till 8 pm and beyond. “For me, 6-8 pm is sacrosanct. It’s pretty much the only time I get with my family,” Mittal said.
So, although both her daughters were fine with her absence from home, although she had hired help with housework, although she had in-laws who pitched in, she put in her papers in February this year after completing 11 months with the company, ending a career spanning 20 years.
“That job finally purged the desire in me to work in the corporate world,” she said.
Later this month, she will be launching her third book, Let’s Have Coffee, published by Rupa.
Mittal is just one of millions of Indian women who have been falling off the employment map in India, as our ongoing series has reported. But as this story explains, she represents a special category of women.
In eight years to 2012, 19.6 million women quit (or lost) jobs. This decline is evident whichever way you slice the data: Rural or urban, formal sector or informal, illiterate women or post-graduates. The biggest decline has been amongst two groups–illiterate women and post-graduates, according to a 2017 World Bank report, Precarious Drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labour Force Participation in Indian.
There was an 11.5% decline in the workforce participation by illiterate women in rural areas. In urban areas, workforce participation for illiterate women was 5%.
Workforce participation amongst college-educated women fell by 8 percentage points in rural India and 4 percentage points in urban India between 1993-94 and 2011-12, said the report.
Why would a woman with a college education quit employment? A clue might, perhaps, lie in college.
To have more women leaders, India needs more women students in elite institutions
There’s no shortage of women science teachers in schools and colleges in India, found a 2015 report from the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia. A gap emerges during the transition from acquiring degrees to pursuing a career in science.
Unlike many western countries, in India, the issue is not about convincing girls that they can study science and engineering. It’s more about “how to attract women to a career in science and to retain the trained scientific woman power in science”, said Rohini Godbole, vice president of the National Academy of Sciences and the author of the report’s India annexe.
Women are fairly well represented in engineering and medical college in India. Admission data for 2000-01 showed that women comprised 30% and 45% of students in engineering and medical colleges respectively, found the same report.
But when it comes to the elite IITs, the numbers just dwindle to single digit percentages–8% in 2016, 9% in 2015 and 8.8% in 2014.
Even when women get into the IITs, they are less likely to qualify for the top-ranked ones.
For 2017, only 20.8% of students who qualified were women, indicate results for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)–Advanced, the test designed specifically for the IITs and recognised internationally as one of the toughest undergraduate admission tests. Moreover, 93.2% of the top 1,000 positions were taken by men.
Yet, said Godbole, although the fraction of women students in the IITs is small, the gender gap amongst high achieving students is negligible.
Why aren’t more girls getting into the IITs?
“The fiercely competitive nature of the admission process requires one to spend money and time to prepare for the entrance examinations,” said Godbole. “I suspect that the parents, on average, tend not to spend this for daughters.”

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