What’s holding Indonesian women back? Understanding the social norms that limit girls’ ambitions in the world of work

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Memahami norma-norma sosial yang membatasi perempuan di dunia kerja Memahami norma-norma sosial yang membatasi perempuan di dunia kerja

“I want to be an independent woman. To try everything, be able to do whatever I want. To study law and be a lawyer. I will continue to study until I am old.” Prita, a 17-year-old female high school student in Bandung, West Java.

“On Instagram, I saw many women who have become soldiers and police officers. They make me think, this is a possibility for me. I can be like them. I have to be brave.” Ani, an 18-year-old female high school student in Yogyakarta.

These are a few voices of Indonesian girls talking about their aspirations. Such high aspirations are not surprising, since in general Indonesian girls are doing well at school. They tend to stay in school longer than boys, also perform better than boys in some subjects. However, conversations around aspirations and dreams of future careers with young women and men keep returning to another topic. That is, how the responsibility for childcare continues to affect and limit women’s choices.

So, there is a BUT …

“In reality, men and women have the right to the same jobs. But of course, women are responsible for the next generation. It would be better if women have jobs that are more suitable for them and for their families. Women shouldn’t spend all their time at work. If they did, how would they fulfill their responsibility to take care of their family?” Nurma, a 17-year-old female vocational high school student in Sukabumi, West Java, offered this perspective.

Even very young girls have already seen that one day they will need to work around childcare duties, and most of them have anticipated this in their future plans. Boys, even those whose mothers have professional careers, expect that their future wives will only work for a few years before a baby comes along. After that, a part-time job or managing a small business from home are all most women can expect – only contributing a side income, no more.

“Once a woman has children, she is a mother and she cannot forget her responsibility for her children. I wouldn’t mind if my wife had a job, as long as she doesn’t forget her main responsibility for childcare.” Hendar, 18-year-old male high school student in Sidoarjo, East Java, summed up the position of many young men.

While established social norms could be considered as appropriate or inappropriate depending on the context, it does not mean they cannot be changed.  The fact that more and more Indonesian women succeed in parenting, while being productive and earning an income, offers some promises as long as they are aware that this is possible and if they are given the opportunity.

Nevertheless, many girls still need to be assured that having a successful career does not preclude the possibility of also having a family and being a good mother and that their choices will be supported by their partners, parents, and communities. 

So what will it take to achieve this? We need to inspire people to challenge current gender and social norms, as wide as possible – including the government, those with influence, also the young people themselves . This includes:

  • Public information campaigns that show young people what they can achieve in their careers. Giving them role models that they can relate to, such as female engineers, scientists, business leaders, professionals. “They are from your city, they went to your school, Prita. Look, they did it, so can you”. Also, giving examples of couples sharing childcare duties and house chores: “This is how we do things now, it works for us”.
  • Career guidance services with counselors who hold a different playbook. One which doesn’t point one way for girls and another way for boys, and helps them search online, present themselves, and connect to opportunities, businesses, and industry.
  • Policies that enable women entrepreneurs to develop and sustain their businesses, easily access loans, information, marketing ideas, how to promote their products and services online.
  • Policies that strengthen the quality of affordable childcare, by bringing in standards for childcare services, training, and accreditation for childcare workers.
  • Celebrating family-friendly workplaces that provide parents time to take care of their children in a flexible way and do what works to keep women working.

With these measures, we hope that Prita, Ani, Nurma, and millions of other Indonesian girls will have a greater chance to pursue their ambitions and dreams without worrying about how they must also remain solely responsible to care for their children.

Note: quotations are from focus group discussions conducted for the report: “What’s Holding Women Back? A Qualitative Study of Constraints Underlying Women’s Labor Force Participation in Indonesia: The Case of Java”. All names are pseudonyms.

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