Why Are India's Women So Stressed Out?

Tapping its rich mine of educated female talent has been an important factor in allowing India to become one of the world's fastest-growing economies. But recently this particular dynamo has been showing signs of strain. According to "Women of Tomorrow," a recent Nielsen survey of 6,500 women across 21 different nations, Indian women are the most stressed in the world today. An overwhelming 87% of Indian women said they felt stressed most of the time, and 82% reported that they had no time to relax.

The Nielsen survey's respondents blame the difficulty of juggling multiple roles at home and work. Career opportunities for women in "the New India" are rapidly expanding, but family expectations and social mores remain rooted in tradition.

Not surprisingly, the most stress is felt among women between 25 and 55 years of age, who are trying to balance demanding careers with obligations at home. We discovered some of these pushes and pulls in our research for our upcoming book, Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution.

Traditional family structures have a disproportionate effect on Indian women, even those who are urban, college-educated professionals, and especially for those who are the first generation in their families to have a career. Indian women are pulled by demands from relatives as they attempt to conform to the paradigm of "ideal daughter," "ideal wife," and "ideal daughter-in-law." Among the many interviews conducted in researching the book, it wasn't at all rare to hear of successful professionals who woke up at 4:30 a.m. to make breakfast and lunch for children and parents-in-law, put in a full day at work, then returned home to clean up after the extended family and prepare dinner.

Ambitious women often feel they have to overcompensate at work, too, to counter ingrained preconceptions about their commitment or competence. "There's a sense that a woman is just working until she gets married, [that] she is not a long-term resource," said one senior finance professional. But proving their worth by putting in longer hours or volunteering for business trips — the conventional methods to further one's career — isn't always possible.

Despite the technological prowess of India's engineers and outsourcing firms, the country's basic infrastructure isn't sophisticated enough to support telecommuting and work-from-home arrangements on a widespread basis. Furthermore, flex time is rarely an option in a workplace culture that focuses on face time rather than results, says Hema Ravichandar, human resources adviser and formerly the global head of HR at Infosys. "Even in companies which have these facilities, it is not considered the right thing to do if you are serious about going up the corporate ladder," says Ravichandar.

These stresses have serious ramifications for India's continued economic growth. More than half (55%) of the Indian women interviewed have encountered workplace bias severe enough to make them consider scaling back their career goals, reducing their ambition and engagement, or quitting altogether, feeding into the very biases they grapple with and dealing a sharp blow to the country's demographic dividend, a key factor in India's growth which is experiencing its own stress.

Some Indian companies are taking steps to help these stressed women. For example, Infosys, the Bangalore-based info-tech powerhouse, offers the Infosys Women's Inclusivity Network (IWIN). IWIN makes Infosys a female-friendly environment by identifying the stress points at which women tend to leave the organization and creating policies that help them deal with those stresses. Surveys showed that many Infosys women dropped out after getting married; the numbers skyrocketed after the birth of their first child and were almost universal after the second. In response, Infosys introduced a one-year "child care sabbatical" with the option of working part-time for the next two years.

Further discussions help women have a say in how their company can help their work-life balance. "Every year, we ask women, 'What are three things you want us to do?'" to make Infosys more attractive to them and make it easier for them to do their job, says Nandita Gurjar, senior vice president and group head of human resources. "We do all of them."

Women are critical contributors in finance, info-tech, pharmaceutical research, and other industries that are driving the growth of India Inc. Easing the stresses that prevent them from reaching their full potential at work is a smart way for companies to attract and retain key talent. Keeping women's careers on track may not guarantee ongoing economic success but not doing so will surely limit it.

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