Women Mavericks – Need of the Hour in India

Having been in the development sector for 14 years, I had heard and read about how one of the best ways to give a woman a ‘voice’ in her own life, and her household, was for her to become economically independent.

And for the longest time, I believed it. Till this hypothesis was severely tested this summer. Let me explain.

I started my own company, Magic Billion, two and a half years ago, to help skilled Indians access the best international job opportunities. Of those we placed abroad, less than 5% are women. Agreed, that’s not the best number to look at since this number should be disaggregated for types of job roles – sectors like manufacturing and construction have predominantly high number of male participants.

However, for a sector like education, especially elementary/primary and middle school teachers (those to teach grades/classes 1 through 8), 50% or more teachers are women in India. I couldn’t find a statistic for this from India but having worked in the education sector in India for 5 years and being a product of the system myself, I find that to be a reasonable assumption. As a comparator, in the OECD countries, on average more than 80% of teachers teaching primary/elementary children are women.

We are currently placing Indian teachers for 3-5 years in the US on a J1 Cultural Exchange visa. For teachers this is a brilliant program, and honestly if I was a teacher, I would have applied. Too many reasons to count but a few are:

· It’s for 3-5 years, so long term – particularly great for those looking to go to the US, with severe restrictions in the usual H1B visa category for skilled Indians.

· You earn $45-70K/annum (depending on the state in the US) – this amounts to INR 35-55lacs/annum. Current salaries for urban teachers in India are on average INR 5-6lacs/annum. The math on how much you will save is a no-brainer.

· Your spouse/domestic partner can work on a J2 visa – again, unlike H4 visas (dependants of H1B visas) who cannot work in the US. So, two incomes for your household with the J1 visa.

· Your children can study in American schools – good for international exposure.

· Better opportunities when you return to India after 5 years – having worked in an international environment counts in every sector and country.

Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it is. But 2 months down, our sales and marketing team, has only been able to convince 5 teachers of how amazing this could be for them. FIVE. Of the 500 eligible applications (we received a total of 1500 CVs), 80% were women. Of this 80%, about half said they couldn’t pay the INR 3-3.5lac fees for the process training and US Sponsor’s visa related paperwork. We are providing skill loans for that but for the purposes for this argument, let’s focus on the balance 50% – or 200 female teachers. A staggering 90% of these financially independent women backed out after being “very excited” about the opportunity when our team first contacted them. The reason was the same, someone else who influences the decisions for them was not excited enough: husband didn’t agree, father-in-law didn’t agree, or parents didn’t agree. All women were in the 25-40-year age group, and very few had a LinkedIn profile (i.e. they may be on social media platforms but not on professional ones). I am not calling these women ‘oppressed’ by any means but they are certainly not decision makers of their households. In my mind this is a broader women empowerment question (#metoo).

As an Indian woman myself and a development professional, this was both frustrating and enlightening at the same time. Arguments like you are of marriageable age so this is not the best time for you to move to the US, are not strong enough. Why constantly run on the standard path with pre-determined stops? Why can’t finding a partner and having a job abroad work hand in hand? Men do this all the time. We, as women, who have these opportunities need break these arguments down, have a discussion as equals in our households and be bold. We need to watch out and pull each other up.

On deeper thought and discussion, I realised that perhaps there are just not enough examples of Indian women who come from humble environs and have made it big because they were mavericks. And even if there are examples, they are not being talked about as much as they should be.

We are doing as much as we can, as Magic Billion, to give a platform to our Indian female candidates to speak about their journeys (watch Sushmitha and Golda Maria), so we know who the mavericks amongst us are – and I implore others who know similar women to help them to speak up!