“Why aren’t more of India’s women working?” Aruna Ranganathan, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, asked at the beginning of her Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows presentation.
While extant explanations and policy solutions place a burden on both the government and private citizens, Ranganathan observed, her research proposes a different direction in approaching this question.
“Organizations are a key actor that can help resolve the issue,” she said.
During her presentation, Ranganathan shared findings from her recent research (in collaboration with Dr. David Pedulla) that comes from a large field study she had conducted at a garment factory in India for two years. In seeking a way for organizations to help improve the female labor force participation in India, which had been declining despite the country’s economic growth, she identified a key challenge faced by female workers as the conflicting demands placed by work and motherhood: “A significant proportion of women workers in the garment sector are mothers,” Ranganathan explained. “These women struggle to balance the competing demands coming from their work lives as well as their family demands to take care of their children.” She then argued that an organizational program such as employer-sponsored childcare—the focus of her research project—could not only improve the participation of women at work, but also function as an “equalizer” that reduces societal gender inequalities faced by women.
To examine the effect of employer-sponsored childcare on the quality of women’s work participation at the factory, Ranganathan compared the daily attendance of working mothers before and after they had gained access to the onsite childcare center. The effect was positive. She observed that a woman who had access to childcare was 5% more likely to show up to the factory on any given day: “Even though the effect might seem small, it adds up,” she noted. “On a monthly basis, women who have access to childcare are getting much more pay.”
There was another layer of the story when Ranganathan took a closer look at her data. Whether one’s child is a boy or a girl made a huge difference in how much the childcare program helped the workers. In fact, attendance of mothers with sons did not change much after they had gained access to childcare; for mothers with daughters, however, attendance increased by almost 10%. Why was this the case? She found the explanation rooted in India’s strong son preference, which makes family members willing to provide informal childcare to mothers with sons, but not to those with daughters. One woman said in her interview, “I am confident that my mother will take good care of my son […] that’s not the case for my daughter.” Indeed, Ranganathan found the differential effect of the childcare program to be stronger for women living with a spouse or parents. Therefore, employer-sponsored childcare helped women, but particularly those facing a greater social disadvantage.
Ranganathan emphasized the value of her research in the current political climate in India, as the country is in the midst of a policy debate regarding mandating organizations to provide employer-sponsored childcare. “Even beyond childcare, there are a whole host of other work-family programs that organizations can provide,” she said. “It’s important for employers to begin to explore these options, as they might be especially helpful for disadvantaged women.”