Scholar discusses changes in India’s urban workforce
For years, men have dominated India’s working world. Recently, however, women have joined the workforce in droves, and men have taken on more technical professions, said Raka Ray, a professor of sociology and South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Women, who formerly faced a life consisting only of marriage and taking care of the home, have become much more ambitious and have a greater desire to become part of India’s workforce, choosing a career over marriage, Ray said. “So here’s the capacity to aspire. … It’s considered an essential element in this culture of entrepreneurship. ... Most people talk about aspiration as if it’s an individual possession — either you have it or you don’t,” said Ray.
As Ray quoted from a 2007 Times of India article, “there are two Indias in this country. One India is straining at the leash. The other India is the leash. Upper-middle-class men and all women seemed to be the ones straining at the leash and working class and lower class men were considered the leash.” Ray said that this aspirational gap between the lower and upper classes is causing great tensions in India’s economy.
These young female ambitious workers come from all over India and move to cities in order to find work, such as Allahabad, known for its excellent vocational schools.
One of these schools is TexDesign, a fashion design school primarily for young women, which was founded by a woman who wanted other women to have options and skills beyond housewifery.
Ray stated that “an earlier generation of women had to learn to adjust. These women have learned that they not only have to adjust but that their life is going to be a series of negotiations. … They expect to negotiate home and work.”
Ray also gave anecdotal evidence, changing the name of each subject to protect their identity. Richa, 21, an upper-class woman from an area outside Allahabad, wanted to go to college, but her father and brothers were traditionalists and did not allow her, Ray recounted. Though Richa had never considered a career in fashion design, this was her only way to further her education, and her father allowed her to go.
Another school, CompuDesign, is a school for young men to learn computer skills and take English classes so they can be employed in the service sector. After completing the courses, the men are guaranteed employment. Rajesh, 19, came to Allahabad from a farming town because it was no longer lucrative to work in agriculture. He continued taking classes at the school because his English was too weak to land him a job.
Ray also noted that many young people move to Mumbai with dreams of becoming big stars in Bollywood films.
The women who move to Mumbai, when asked about their motives for moving, say things like, “I was always a winner,” Ray said. Gauri, another subject, was a badminton champion when she was a teenager, but her parents forbade her from playing anymore. She worked odd jobs and took acting and film editing classes so that she could support herself while she tried to become a star.
Like Gauri, many women who moved to Mumbai were “discriminated against by their families and wanted to make something of themselves,” Ray said.
These women present a kind of ambition and confidence that is relatively new to India, as they take control of their lives and leverage their self-worth in order to embark on career paths, Ray asserted.
The men who move to Mumbai are more rural and lower-class and are less ambitious than the women, Ray said. When asked why they moved to Mumbai, they said things like, “all the boys in my house were good in studying except me.”
Jagdish failed his exams in 10th grade, bribed someone to take them for him, started dancing in religious festivals, worked backstage in a theater and then discovered acting. After going to a theater academy and failing to pass the tests for entering the police force, he moved to Mumbai.
While women worry about marriage, Ray explained, men worry much more about their financial struggles and their shame in asking their parents for money to aid their pursuits of fledgling careers.
Even though the women have become more ambitious, there are fewer opportunities for them in the male-dominated film industry, and most jobs offers go to male acting stars, Ray said.
Though the gender revolution has changed the workforce, “the hegemonic masculine ideal in India is still the wage-earner whose wife does not have to work outside the home,” Ray said. The young people who move to the cities, she concluded, want to make something of themselves in order to alleviate their anxiety and to make others proud of them.