70 Hours Or Not, Women Remain Overworked And Least Rewarded

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, Narayana Murthy's comments seemed to lack awareness of how excessive work demands can exclude underrepresented groups - women.

Anahita Thukral
Nov 07, 2023 12:44 IST
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women working

Earlier this month, Indian business tycoon Narayana Murthy advised young people to be willing to work up to 70 hours per week to drive India's productivity and growth. His comments sparked a heated debate on social media and in the press about the culture of overwork, economic inequality, and diversity in India's high-tech sector. 

Murthy, the billionaire co-founder of Indian IT giant Infosys, argued that young Indians must make sacrifices and have a "karmayogi mindset" to build successful careers and contribute to the nation's development. He cited examples of people studying and working long hours in countries like the US and China and said young people in India should have a similar work ethic. 

Critics were quick to point out the problematic aspects of Murthy's statement. Working 70-hour weeks on a regular basis is seen by many as an unreasonable expectation that can lead to burnout and negatively impact mental health and work-life balance. For India's tech workforce, which is already grappling with intense pressure and demanding schedules, the proposal sparked concerns about the sustainability of such work norms. 

As an Indian who pursued higher education abroad and encountered diverse work environments, I've grown to appreciate the importance of achieving a work-life balance that allows me to savour both my career and personal life. In many nations, remuneration is structured around hourly wages, ensuring you receive compensation for each hour dedicated to your job. This model resonates with the fundamental idea that your time holds value, and you should be appropriately rewarded.

Moreover, the idea that young people should make personal sacrifices for the sake of the nation's growth overlooks India's deep economic inequality. While the booming tech sector has produced new wealth, India still has millions struggling with poverty and lack of access to opportunity. Asking young people to overwork for national progress is unfair when the fruits of that labour are so unevenly distributed.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, Murthy's comments seemed to lack awareness of how excessive work demands can exclude underrepresented groups. For instance, women often shoulder heavy family responsibilities in India and may not be able to sustain 70+ hour work weeks. People with disabilities or health issues may also be unable to adhere to such punishing schedules. Implying that someone who can't work 70 hours lacks drive feeds into simplistic narratives that see diversity as a cultural problem, rather than a consequence of systemic barriers.

This creates a major criticism of the culture in India's tech industry. While companies are happy to talk about diversity and inclusion, the lived reality for many workers, especially women and minority groups, is intense pressure, lack of flexibility, and burnout. Murthy's rhetoric aligns with the mindset that preserving the status quo workplace culture matters more than accommodating diverse perspectives and needs.

In the wake of the controversy, a number of Indian technology professionals spoke up to share their experiences of the industry's excessive demands.  Yogita Kadam, the founder of a diversity and inclusion consultancy, tweeted about her gruelling schedules earlier in her tech career, noting that she was often the only woman in late-night coding sessions. Other women in tech echoed how 24/7 work expectations forced some of them to quit eventually.

Activists also pointed out that the tech sector relies heavily on contract workers who lack job security and must put in long hours to retain unstable employment. For these precariously employed groups, the choice is between overwork or no work at all. This exploitative system is concerning from an ethical perspective.

While Murthy later clarified that he did not expect every person to be able to work 70 hours weekly, his initial remarks played into familiar narratives that sustain tech's overwork culture. The ensuing discussion has centred crucial questions about whose labour this system demands, who gets ahead, who gets burned out, and who gets excluded.

Meaningful progress on diversity and inclusion in Indian technology companies will require grappling with these issues rather than doubling down on unrealistic work expectations. Companies will need to interrogate whether their culture is designed for an abstract ideal worker or makes space for diverse peoples' talents and needs. Government and industry leaders will have to ask themselves tough questions about sustainability, equity, and ethics if India is to nurture an innovation society that provides opportunities for all.

The debate sparked by Murthy's comments is a reminder that pursuing inclusion and diversity is about more than just hiring targets and PR campaigns. It requires looking critically at how workplaces are structured, whose interests they serve, and who bears the human cost of the relentless pursuit of growth and success. While there are no easy answers, acknowledging these complex issues is the first step toward building a tech ecosystem that is creative, humane and open to all.

I believe we can honour both hard work and a well-lived life. It's possible to strike a balance that fosters success without sacrificing precious moments with family, hobbies, and self-care.


Views expressed by the author are their own

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