The pandemic has set back women’s progress in the workplace


With an increasing burden at home, women are seeing their work performances slip, and in some cases, are forced to give up work altogether.

Aparna, a Hyderabad-based content writer, has started waking up at 2 am every alternate day. It is not an idiosyncratic habit, but between household chores, taking care of an elderly mother-in-law and a two-year-old son, this odd hour is the only time she has found to work to keep up with her professional commitments.

Like scores of others, Aparna has been confined to the house and work from home (WFH), thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. “While my husband has made an elaborate setup in his study room, I work standing for most part of my day. My kid jumps around too much and I have already lost three keys on my keyboard,” she explains.

In a majority of households, household work chores and caregiving are still considered a woman’s domain. The amount of unpaid care work women shoulder globally is massive – it adds up to 12.5 billion hours per day, and is equivalent to 1.5 billion people working for eight hours a day, without pay. And now, this burden has increased substantially, and it’s affecting their professional work. 

One of the reasons behind the increase – especially for urban, middle class and above households – has been that services of paid domestic workers have been discontinued over COVID-19 fears. The other reasons are the entire family being at home, and especially with young children and online classes, women find their existing household chores multiplying. One survey found that 79% women were cooking in their homes compared to 55% pre-lockdown.

It doesn’t help that in most cases, male partners and family members are either unwilling to share household work or simply aren’t as adept at it. 

The 28-year-old admits feeling upset that she has to shoulder most of the work. However, Aparna has decided to pick her battles. “With all the work, I don’t feel it is worth a fight when you’re living under the same roof every single day, for my own mental peace. Sometimes, it’s like I’m taking care of three children at once – my own son, my husband and my mother-in-law!”

But the reality is that women are faced with an ever-increasing workload, on top of their professional life. Along with the uncertainty and fears of living in the pandemic, many women are seeing their performances at work slip, putting their long-term career goals in jeopardy, and in some cases, forcing them to give up work altogether.

How this is impacting work performance

Missed deadlines and taking longer than usual to finish assignments have become an unfortunate part of life for Shue*, who works in academic publishing as a freelancer and moved to Delhi in 2016 with her husband to be closer to her parents. So far, though she has not suffered any pecuniary or social setbacks, she has had to let go of much of her leisure and rest time to ensure she can balance housework and professional commitments. She cooks for four people, and manages most of the cleaning and upkeep of the house. “My husband, though willing, is simply unaware of the nitty gritty of my parents’ household — so I can’t quite offload it on him even if he was available,” Shue says.

“I feel tired, my body aches, my mood is often blue, my thoughts are often negative. Though I still find joy in many of the activities I do daily, it does take a lot of self-therapising,” she adds. 

Online classes for children have added a new dimension to women’s workday as well, becoming unforeseen distractions on top of acts of planning — like what to make for meals, taking inventory of the groceries — that aren’t new, but still need to be managed. 

Smrithi’s* husband, for instance, can cook, but still lacks the skills to cook for the entire family. They also have an eight-year-old. “When he has online classes, I am only half present at work. Then, by the time his first set of classes get over, he will want a snack. I keep thinking that I have to start cooking by such time to give him something to eat by 10 am. All that thinking and planning also takes up mind space,” the business planner says. “It’s not that my husband doesn’t want to help, but he does not prioritise chores and caregiving the same way.”

In the last few months, Smrithi has been functioning on just 4-5 hours of sleep daily. “I can only finish my work at night after all the household chores are out of the way.”

‘Managing’ the help is additional work

Even in the cases where husbands or male family members are willing to help, women can be reluctant to give them reins simply because men haven’t learnt to do these chores or could do them poorly. Divya, who designs T-shirts, would initially end up doing the dishes herself for this reason. “My husband would end up taking twice as long. As an entrepreneur, you learn that it’s all about time-efficiency, and this wasn’t efficient.” 

Tarini* also points out that men often do not understand what equal division of labour translates to in real life, though they claim so. The 31-year-old lives in Bengaluru with a partner who shares the household work equitably, but this was not the case with her previous partner.

“The language most women use when asked about equality at home is indicative of this tacit understanding that women will always do more. ‘Oh, my partner is great, he always helps with chores’. The word ‘help’ itself is a codified expression that suggests housework is primarily a woman’s domain. Interestingly, nobody says the same thing when women break the barriers of traditional set ups and work full time. Nobody says, ‘My partner is great, she helps the house’s financial expenses,” Tarini says.  

Before WFH became the norm and women were still working outside their homes, some of these things were easier to oversee too. “Many of us women who live in urban settings are under the perception that we are in a better place, and have already climbed up the ladder to empowerment to some extent. Pre-lockdown, it was easier to continue with this façade because you could delegate it to a domestic worker and make it paid work,” Subarna, who is employed with the ReRight Foundation that focuses on women’s reproductive rights. 

In mid-May, Subarna started an online petition on Change.org, asking Prime Minister Modi to address men in his next speech and ask them to share household work equally. It has gathered over 77.8k signatures so far. Interestingly, Subarna came up with the idea of starting the petition while she was washing dishes while on a work call.

This differentiation between ‘help’ and ‘responsibility’ that Tarini pointed out is illustrated by Preeti*, who tells TNM that her father automatically stepped in to do a lion’s share of the housework when his manufacturing work came to a standstill with the lockdown. Though he took on responsibilities before the lockdown as well, Preeti, her sister and their mother can focus on their work from home while he handles the house. 

“My mom is a school teacher, and has online classes going on most of the day. Can you imagine having to cook, clean and plan while dealing with a virtual class of students?” Preeti says. “It has to do with how my father was raised. He would always participate with his mom in the kitchen and with other housework,” she says. 

“We help him when we can,” Preeti adds.

Workplaces need a change too

In some cases, women have had to give up working altogether. Ipshita Sen, founder of Engendered, a Bengaluru-based organisation that works towards making workplaces more gender-equitable, recalls one young woman’s story. “Her husband had overseas clients, so he would work nights and sleep in the mornings. Her office demanded she attended morning meetings. When her child missed his online classes because she was struggling to manage so much, it became the mother’s fault for the school. Ultimately, the mental stress got too much.”

However, some workplaces have been more supportive. “When I have to answer my son’s study doubts in between my work calls, no one bats an eyelid,” Smrithi says. “But when no one else is taking so many breaks, you feel guilty doing it. If they forget I am around, it will ultimately be my loss.”  

Some women also point out that men’s workplaces do not take into account that they would also have household responsibilities. “My husband’s office does not address the household burden at all — they just operate as if he was doing what he is doing from the institute itself and not his home,” says Shue, whose husband works in the education sector and has to conduct live sessions through the day. 

Far-reaching impact on working women 

Ipshita points out that the pandemic and WFH situation will further disadvantage women who already lose out because of a flawed evaluation system and old-fashioned understanding of performance at the workplace. “For example, many offices still use the time-sheet method and evaluate you based on when you clock in at the office and when you clock out. But a woman who shoulders most household responsibilities may finish more work and clock out early. But it may be seen as her not spending enough time at work. Now, with WFH becoming the norm, these issues will get compounded.”

Aishwarya, who works in Bengaluru at a company that helps women come back to work, explains that since men are generally the older spouses, they have had a head start in their career. Compounded with the gender pay gap, they often earn more. If it came to a situation where one partner had to give up work to manage the home, the woman often has to quit simply because she earns less. “And if she returns to work, she would have to settle for a similar CTC or a lower one.”

Ipshita notes, “This is a really unfortunate situation because women have been asking for flexible hours and options like work from home for a long time. And now that it’s happening, it’s just turned the situation on the head for us.”

*Names changed





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