Opinion | Cyndi Lauper’s anthem for girls just changed lyrics—now ‘Girls just wanna work’

Wanting a job and earning a salary is a given for urban, educated women. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

05 Dec 2018 | Anuradha Das Mathur

For young women, work is no longer a matter of ‘choice’. It is an unquestioned way of life

In today’s economy, it is tough to talk about workplaces without mentioning millennials, diversity and inclusion, and gender balance. As millennials—men and women —increasingly join the labour force, it is about time we start talking about how millennial women are shaping and reacting to the modern workplace.

By 2021, India will become the youngest country in the world, with 64% of its population in the working age group of 20-35 years, and about half will be women. And given the positive multiplier effects that financially independent, working women have on their families, other women, and the economy as a whole, India cannot afford to squander its demographic dividend away.

While women’s rights and their participation in the labour force are advancing around the world, the global tide of female empowerment seems to have missed India. Whether it’s figures around women’s participation in the workforce, their presence in senior management roles, or the ubiquitous gender wage gap, there is irrefutable evidence that suggests India is not even half-way on the long road to gender equality.

Don’t take our word for it. According to the World Bank’s Female Labour Force Participation report, India ranks 121 out of 131 countries. Nepal is 53 points ahead of India on this score. Close to 19.6 million Indian women quit their jobs between 2005 and 2012, said the report.

Millennial women are different from previous generations. While their mothers and grandmothers may not have had the ability or will to pursue careers outside their homes, it is almost heretical among urban millennial women to stay at home after finishing their education or give up their jobs after marriage.

A particularly striking early finding from our online survey conducted among urban, educated, working millennial women is that for young women, work is no longer a matter of “choice”. In fact, more often than not, it is an unquestioned way of life. Almost 80% of our respondents said that their earnings and investments in their adolescence and early adulthood mattered to their family, as opposed to being mere “top-ups”. What’s more, an overwhelming 76% believe that it is this career-oriented mind-set that keeps them in the workforce (even higher than the 65% who believe that supportive family structures are critical).

“I found a job three weeks before I finished my undergraduate degree. I didn’t want to ask my parents for money and craved my own financial independence,” a 24-year old female respondent told us. Having a stable job and earning a salary has boiled down to something fundamental in the 21st century global order: personal freedom and liberty.

What was perhaps most interesting about the respondent was that she was working at a company which was a direct competitor to her father’s business. No, she wasn’t a Trojan Horse trying to internally sabotage the competition. She was there to learn best practices so when she eventually joined her father’s business, she would be more effective. Young women, from all walks of life, are viewing their positions in the workforce as a right, or a way of life, and not a privilege granted by their fathers or husbands or a mere contribution to their family income.

We interviewed the mother of the same respondent, who had a very different story. Married at 22, and a mother at 25, she never considered a career after finishing college. “I was married so young, and we didn’t need the money. Why would I have worked?” she asked in complete earnestness. Often at conferences, or panels on women leadership, it is not uncommon to hear successful women say that they had the option not to work. You will almost never hear a man say the same. And now, we find that young millennial girls are no longer treating getting to work as a choice, an option or a privilege.

The stark changes in the attitudes of young women towards work are set to cause tectonic shifts in society, with major implications, specifically for organizations. On the one hand, it indicates that they need to continue investing in supportive family structures and flexi-work policies, which allow women to fulfil their domestic and familial responsibilities without compromising on their careers and financial remuneration. On the other hand, organizations need to transform their way of doing business, and think about these millennial women as ambitious, driven and motivated people who want to perform at their highest potential for themselves and their organizations.

The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.

Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Vivan Marwaha.