Should I Stay or Should I Go?

In the wake of #MeToo, millennial Indian women are at an impasse.

Businesswoman at her desk, rubbing her eyes.
For women of Indian descent, American workplaces come with their own set of unique challenges.

With the launch of #MeToo, women across the U.S. have begun highlighting instances of sexism and harassment they have faced and have called for safer and more equal workplaces in America. India, too, has had its fair share of gender-in-the-workplace scandals as well as a persistent reputation for gender inequality. And both countries seem to share a desire for remediation and better legislation to tackle these problems.

Now some Indian millennial women are at an impasse. The spotlighting of workplace harassment and gender-inequality cases in the United States are a testament to the fact that the so-called land of the American dream is rampant with the same challenges and issues many of these women hoped to evade. Simultaneously, over the past few years, the government of India has made a significant push to tackle its brain drain problem and has appealed to India’s 16 million NRI (nonresident Indian) population as well as individuals of Indian descent to return to the country and use their skills to fuel economic growth and success.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi first made the call for Indians and persons of Indian origin to return, many thought it was primarily targeting older professionals. However, recently, more millennial Indians are choosing to return home (a fraught term, as many of the people India has tried to woo back have never considered it home in the first place).

Sanjana Subramanian, an Indian who currently lives and works at a major financial institution in New York City, said she was shocked when she found that the majority of her Indian friends had chosen to return to India after university, rather than following the seemingly traditional route of acquiring a full-time job in the United States and vying for an H-1B visa sponsorship.

One reason for this shift is that Indian workplaces are becoming seen as more inclusive and equal environments compared to the Indian workplaces of the early 2000s and before. According to a report by Schneider-Ross, employers in India are increasingly recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion efforts and are instituting programs to create equal employment opportunities as well as safer workspaces for women. Shruthi Gopal, a data and policy analyst working in the San Francisco Bay Area, said that after following the “progressive initiatives currently being undertaken in India,” she is “supportive and optimistic” and would consider working there.

Similarly, Shreya Ramakrishnan, a final-year MBA student at MICA, a school at Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, said that the situation has improved markedly: “Organizations are getting better every day at integrating women in the workforce, especially New Age companies started by younger people.” The biggest problems in India exist in “organizations where mindsets are so different between different levels of hierarchy. A new entry might be very forward-thinking in terms of women’s rights, but the seniormost official may not be. It’ll take some time, but there are changes happening,” she said.

Others, however, seem less enamored with the prospect of moving back to India. Avdeep Dhillon, a rising senior at the University of California, Berkeley, said that as she explores her options for entering the workforce, India is not a consideration. Dhillon’s parents immigrated to the United States from Moga, a city in the northern Indian state of Punjab, when she was young and are considering moving back to India after they retire. However, she said, “It is assumed and understood that because I want to be independent and free, both personally and professionally, I won’t be moving back to India with them.”

Deepa Manjanatha, also a daughter of Indian immigrants, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, shared similar thoughts. Following her graduation from university, Manjanatha spent some time working in India before moving back to the United States: “My time in India did not paint a picture of widespread acceptance or even, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the true value of women and girls in society. So many of the men who I encountered just oozed of very straightforward patriarchal thoughts and beliefs that they didn’t even bother to try and mask (the way that men in America tend to do).”

Sasha John, an Indian who has lived in both the United Arab Emirates and the United States, told me that because of movements like #MeToo, she’s confident that in the U.S. there’s at least a culture that would take her concerns seriously. “There would be a precedent set that would enable me to voice my concerns in ways I haven’t seen other countries doing. These kinds of movements have made me really think about how, in the event that something were to happen to me in the workforce, I’d be in a country where people don’t take this lying down,” said John.

In comparison, John was less convinced such a response would be found in Indian workplaces. “It’s heartening to see people fighting for legislation,” she said. “But, I personally don’t think any change is going to come about in the workplace there because so much of the sexism is ingrained in the cultural and social fabric that just tackling the legislative level isn’t enough. In Indian societies you grow up with a lack of ownership over your body and a lack of agency. I think I’ve just internalized the fact that if I work in India, sexism is something I’m definitely going to have to deal with. I feel like I’d just have to suck it up.” John’s sentiments have been echoed by a number of researchers and advocates who feel the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, which made it illegal to harass a woman in the workplace and set forth mechanisms for reporting and redress, “did not do enough to create tangible change for women in the workplace.”

In contrast, Divya Suri, a current strategy executive working in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said that growing up she viewed the United States as a utopia. However, after living and working there and witnessing these movements materialize and expose problems of gender inequality in the workplace, she began looking for other places to work in and grow her career.

For women of Indian descent, American workplaces come with their own set of unique challenges. Maya Rao, an Indian American with aspirations of working for the U.S. government, said that, as a woman of color, she struggles with being unable to fit into the “pale, male, Yale” stereotype often attributed to professionals in this field. In addition, according to Rao, people in the United States share many Indian societal sentiments, as they “still think that women will quit work once they get pregnant and have children—if they choose to do so at all—and while that is certainly a viable and laudable option, people need to recognize that that’s not a path that many women choose to follow—and that having a baby or having the potential of having a baby does not preclude women from producing amazing work and going above and beyond in the workplace.” Ramakrishnan also voiced concerns about working somewhere like the United States, as she felt her nationality could impede her ability to be heard and succeed in the workplace.

As governments, including the Indian and American governments, push to attract top-quality talent to their workforces and promote increased economic growth, it is important that they recognize the unique challenges women face in their workforces.

As Reaa Puri, the co-founder of Breaktide Productions, who has worked and lived in the United States, Kuwait, and India, said, “Regardless of where women are in the world, we are not safe. Our bodies are often seen as something that don’t belong to us. … The current state of women’s safety, security, and rights in the world is a global and human rights crisis and should be seen as such … I know that no matter where I go I won’t be able to escape this reality.”

As more equal, safe, and nurturing workplaces spring up, more attention needs to be paid to ensuring that these spaces are the norm, not a rarity. Despite growing conversation around workplace harassment and culture, working in a secure workplace is still seen as a privilege, rather than a right. This debate about whether to stay or go is often beside the point if young workers are struggling to find work at all. As John said, for millennials, “finding a job is already so difficult and we face so much insecurity regarding rent and having a roof over our heads. Thinking about workplace structures and dynamics is really just not a priority. We’re willing to take anything we get regardless of the conditions, and that’s problematic.”

Spandana Singh is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow on the Open Technology Institute team at New America.