Three years ago, the dotcom bubble burst. As the recession in the information technology (IT) industry began spreading to other start-up industries, the story seemed to jump out of the newspapers straight into Malathi's life. Her husband, Suresh, lost his job in a small private sector firm without notice and without a substantial severance package. The company had opened shop just a year earlier, with more hope than capital, promising higher salaries than it could afford. Overnight, he went from a five-figure salary to nothing.
"Our sons were just entering college, we lived in a nice flat, and there were many bills to pay. I began to look around for something to do, because we knew our savings wouldn't last forever," Malathi recalls. Although she holds a Master's degree in both English and German, and had taught for a short while before marriage, Malathi had not worked in 20 years. A close relative put her in touch with some international students who wanted to learn English.
"I had never really wanted to work," says Malathi. "It was more important to raise my kids and run an efficient home." Initially, it was easy enough to fit the lessons into her regular housework schedule, but gradually, she began to take on more work, some of it outside the home. Soon she was able to earn enough to pay the grocery bills and part of the rent each month, but balancing work and home became more and more of a challenge.
A 2002 Labour Force Survey in the UK (done by the government department of employment) showed that, for the last 20 years, the vast majority of new jobs created have been in service industries - which typically benefit females - while the typically male industries have been in a decline. This trend holds true for India as well. In urban, middle class India, this has meant that job cuts in the manufacturing industries have most affected men. Those who have been either able to retrain themselves or switch vocations have been able to adapt to these changes. A job market that has an increasing appetite for a young, relatively flexible and uncommitted workforce, has not been friendly to middle-aged men used to large salaries and a high degree of responsibility and control.
This changed economy has led many middle class women to enter the workforce at a relatively later stage in life, more out of compulsion than choice. Some, like Malathi, have the advantage of a good education. Some do not. Prasanna had got married soon after she finished high school and had been a full-time homemaker for the past 22 years. Then her husband, an engineer, lost his job. Her two sons were in hostels, and their savings just about covered these educational expenses. Friends suggested that Prasanna should try to look for opportunities to help support the family.
"I had no idea what I could do," she says. She felt she had neither the confidence nor the qualifications to get an "office job". "A former neighbor then asked me if I would come cook for the family. I thought it was a good opportunity, especially since I would be working in a secure environment." Her husband was categorical, though, that such "menial" work was beneath their status. Prasanna decided to take the job and simply told her husband she helping a friend with embroidery and tailoring to earn some money.
For an "unqualified" middle class woman, the opportunities for employment are limited. Those with some university education get by with tuitions, others put to use a craft or artistic skill. Unlike lower-income groups, where the women are used to the idea of long hours of manual labor, middle class homemakers find it difficult to switch from having had help for such chores to performing them for someone else for a wage.
When women move from the homemaker role to becoming the main breadwinners, family dynamics also change. Though the unemployed husband stays home, he rarely takes on work at home. "Though the money from my work was welcome, the fact that my work took me outside the home was resented," recalls Malathi. "Every little comment I made was taken as criticism of the fact that he didn't have a job while I did. It took a long time for us to achieve an understanding."
This "understanding", however, rarely translates into an equal sharing of work at home. Men forced out of jobs see themselves as victims, and expect therefore to be treated with additional care. A counsellor in Hyderabad cites cases of overworked women, and frustrated men whose unemployment has eroded their self-confidence and their ability to appreciate what their wives do for the home. "The woman often ends up feeling guilty for leaving her husband and kids at home to go out to work, and therefore hesitates to ask for help in the home - because it's a domain where she has always been the one to take charge," the counsellor explains.
The situation is only slightly different when both spouses have been working all along, and the man suddenly loses his job. Divya's husband was laid off after being with a company for 12 years. Her job in the Railways became the only steady source of income for the family. "For years, my husband had been drawing the higher salary, and my pay was just the icing on the cake," she says. "In the beginning, he was very appreciative of the fact that I had a job. But as time wore on and his job search didn't look very bright, he began to hate that I left the house everyday with a purpose and he stayed home." Women, in short, are also forced to learn to tread the fine line that holds family tensions in check.
Government of India figures (Census 2001) indicate that 10 per cent of Indian households are headed by women (where the woman is the sole earner, usually a single parent). This is considered to be a gross underestimate, as it does not take into account arrangements where both spouses are living but the male is unemployed, nor does it take into account women's employment in the informal sector, where many middle class women work.
In spite of these pressures, for many women, the "going out" leads to a remarkable growth. Prasanna, for instance, has visibly gained in confidence in the two months that she has been earning. She has been attending computer classes and learning that she can talk to people with a confidence that she never knew she possessed. "When I go back home I do have to deal with my husband's mixed reactions, but this experience has shown me that I can manage in a tough situation."
(Names of women quoted in the story have been changed to protect their identity.)