How Lockdown Affected Working Women Spiking the Gender Gap

Various reports have shown a decrease in women’s participation in the workforce. This was aggravated by the lockdown necessitated by Covid-19. As urban women try to juggle their work and home which have been upended by the pandemic, what emerges is a world that little cares about them and their problems. While their estimated earned income is only one-fifth of men’s in India, what is worse is the lack of equitable opportunities at work and anxiety about the future, writes NUPUR DOGRA. 


RECENTLY, India fell by 28 positions to 140 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap report. The report identifies the decrease in women’s participation in the labour force, from 24.8 percent to 22. 3 percent, as one of the major drivers of the fall. The share of women in technical roles declined further by 29.2 percent.

So, what goes on behind these percentages and what it is like living the gap? Women in various professions spoke to The Leaflet about their personal experiences.

Misogyny at Work and Home 

Shweta*, a 28-year-old woman from Hyderabad, works in a leading PR firm. She said: “The boundaries between work and home are blurred. Being a newly married woman, the relentless effort to leave no room for judgment on both fronts made things worse. Remaining at the top of your work is important to maintain your manager’s trust as he can always turn to a male colleague with a new opportunity to avoid the ‘hassle’. At the same time, one has to prove one’s mettle at home in order to earn the badge of a ‘balanced new-age woman’. Sometimes, I wanted to type on my family WhatsApp group that “jokes about men being bad at household chores are not funny!”

The “balanced new age women” Shweta* talks about are most sought after in the urban set-up. She constantly juggles between housework, family and office. Her hustle is “magic” and “I don’t know how you manage everything effortlessly” is her appreciation. And she is always grateful that her family supports her.

Making it in a country, that accounts for 45.8 million “missing” girls due to female foeticide and infanticide puts them on a pedestal. Living on the pedestal without complaining are many women like Shweta. Because they are the “lucky” ones.

“I often go to bed with an anxious mind and wake up tired just at the thought of juggling these two spheres throughout the day. And if that is not enough, a male colleague can call me at 11:55 pm.” Raising issues with the manager invited statements like “Your problems at work stem from your personal life.” adds Shweta.

Undefined Working Hours 

Megha*, a software engineer from Ranchi, said that after the lockdown, she left Delhi to stay with her parents. Initially, work from home was smooth. “Before Covid-19, my work timings were 10 am to 7:30 pm. Since the lockdown, my timings are 11 am to 11:30 pm. Work pressure has increased immensely as there have been no new hires. I am now looking for a switch due to my manager. I don’t mind working extra as long as I am being paid fairly and have peace of mind.”

Since the lockdown, a senior manager had been calling her at odd hours to discuss things that could have waited till the next morning. After making small talk about work, he starts casual conversations. “Initially, I politely ignored him, but it has become a problem. My appraisals have been affected as I refused to entertain a 40-plus, married senior manager on WhatsApp chats and late-night calls.”

Why hadn’t  she complained? “He is the senior manager and we don’t have any proof. He can easily get away with it by calling it a work-related call as there is no limit to working hours.”

Megha is looking for a switch from a company she once felt lucky to be associated. This behaviour is so normalised that she spoke about it after 30 minutes into the conversation. The depths to which misogyny is internalised is appalling.

Not the Breadwinner 

Reema*, a 27-year-old teacher from Noida was put on hold by the management till further notice. She said: “After the lockdown, my grandmother fell sick. I had to take care of her, manage household chores and work from home. In June, the school management told me that I was ‘put on hold’ till further notice. They said I shouldn’t make such a big deal as my father is a businessman and I am not the breadwinner for my family.”

The rest of her 2020 went in taking home tuitions, looking for jobs and facing rejections, which led to depression. “If being dependent on my family for small needs was not bad enough, I felt pressurised to get married,” she said.

Pressure to Get Married

In an urban setup, an unemployed male is seldom pressurised for marriage, but this is not so for unemployed women. In most cases, it is “the next logical step”. Getting employed is secondary.

Amrita, a researcher in a central ministry, was forced to rejoin office three weeks into the lockdown. “Research work can easily be done from home, but because other employees objected, my team had to come to the office. Our work involves dealing with corporate firms. Due to the lockdown, these companies had no fixed working hours. So we worked both from the office and home. There were salary issues and our one-year contract was reduced to three months. A colleague who went back to her parents in Saharanpur after the lockdown was laid off after a week’s notice as her parents didn’t allow her to return and work from home was not allowed. Now I hear she has been married off. This is the story of many girls.”

According to the WEF report, the share of women in senior and managerial positions is at 14.6 percent. And only 8.9 percent of firms in the country have top female managers. 

Left High & Dry 

Monika* from Manipur, a single woman living in Delhi for 10 years, lost her job last month. “After working for more than seven years with a media house, I felt cheated and exploited. Initially, my work could be managed easily from home, but they kept insisting that I come to the office. Eventually, they agreed to let me work from home on a 50 percent salary cut, which was never paid on time. They laid off many employees, which led to increased work pressure. And, then came the termination.”

If we want to close the gender gap then the companies must invest in facilitating and incentivising working women rather than exploiting them.

Maternity Leave

Preeti*, a CA, juggled between her job, household chores, and a newborn baby. While her husband was supportive, it never seemed enough. Initially, everyone was supportive on the work front, but soon the work got unmanageable and overwhelming.

“Before the lockdown, I used to start working at 8:30 am and log out by 4:30 pm. Now, I log out at 10:30 pm. I feel overwhelmed and guilty whenever I see my child looking for me as I work on the laptop. My husband works in the office a few days every week. But I am stuck at home. I just want to feel less over-loaded,” says Preeti.

According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, pregnant women often choose to opt-out. Being a parent brings career encouragement from managers for men and setbacks for women. This has been documented in previous studies as “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood premium”.

Raising a child is a responsibility for both parents. Yet, women find themselves pushed back in their careers after bearing a child. Add to this the burden of completing household chores. In the absence of house helps in lockdown, even those men who tried to help, found themselves unable to do so as they had never done it before. But women are grateful, that they tried.

Self-employment a Better Option?

Sanjana Mehta, a Delhi-based choreographer, found that she had to return whatever advance had taken for wedding choreography and corporate events due to the lockdown. For four months, there was no income. Eventually, I started taking dance classes online. Being self-employed has saved me.

What Makes Women Stay? 

Shifali* works in the US-headquartered multinational. Her experience with the headquarters has been very positive. When she and her husband shifted back to India, they were allowed to work from home. The company made a policy segregating core working hours from extra working hours that was compensated. Timings were made flexible, and there were extra benefits for women employees.

Shifali’s experience of living with in-laws and managing work too has had its share of ups and downs. “I made it clear from the beginning that as I was earning and working as much as my husband, I will keep a help. There are always expectations and no matter how much you earn, your job is still not taken as seriously as your husband’s. But as I stayed firm, they also understood how important my work was for me.”

According to a 2017 World Bank report–Precarious Drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labour Force Participation in Indian–the biggest decline in work was seen among illiterate women and post-graduates. The pandemic has worsened the situation and exposed the hidden faultlines in the urban work culture, as well as misogyny back home.

The estimated earned income of women in India is only one-fifth that of men’s. This puts India among the bottom 10 globally on this indicator. After they start on similar footing with their male counterparts, why do women lag behind? 

From getting education to getting a job to starting a family, she is reminded sometimes subtly and mostly directly, at every step to be grateful. She works 24×7 on her toes to maintain the tag, “balanced, new-age woman.” Until she finally gives up on her career for her family.

Women who give up careers to look after the family are idealised but a woman who chooses a career over a family is demonised.

India’s performance in the enrolment of female students in primary, secondary, and tertiary classes, which compares with the best countries, is being sold as the “silver lining”. But what does the future hold for these girls? Will they ever get equitable opportunities when they step out to work?

*Names have been changed on request to protect identity.

(Nupur Dogra is an independent journalist. The views expressed are personal.)

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