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Caution: Women at work

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on April 15, 2021

Losing out: The pandemic has hit workers cutting across segments, but women have been the most affected, with studies showing a decline in the female workforce participation rate in 2020   -  ISTOCK.COM

In an age of falling female workforce participation, worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, policy makers and organisations need to rethink how to bridge the gender gap at workplaces

* Working women in India across classes have something in common: They work two jobs — one at the office and another at home

* According to World Bank data released in June 2020, India’s female labour force participation rate fell to 20.3 per cent in 2020

* India also slipped 28 places in the 2021 Gender Gap Index to rank 140th out of 156 countries

* “Women were seven times more likely to lose work during the nationwide lockdown, and, conditional on losing work, eleven times more likely to not return to work, compared to men”

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Shrishti Kothari enjoyed her work as a corporate lawyer. But the 32-year-old Noida resident says that her firm’s “lack of sensitivity” towards her family responsibilities during the pandemic forced her to put in her papers.

After months of work-from-home (WFH), she was recently asked to resume work from her office. “When I requested that I be allowed to continue WFH as I have an infant as well as elders at home, whose safety I was concerned about, they [the bosses] suggested I resign,” she tells BLink on the phone.

In her resignation letter, Kothari said the firm’s “unreasonable policies demanding employees be present in the office in the middle of the pandemic, putting everyone at unnecessary risk” had prompted her to quit.

At the other end of Delhi’s NCR, in Gurugram, Rihana’s day typically begins at 4 am. She finishes her own household chores before walking into an upscale society where she is a part-time help. She ends her day at 8pm, after cooking dinner for her employers. “I had to continue working after the birth of my children due to economic reasons. But it ended up creating a rift between my husband and me. Now I’ve separated from my husband, who refuses to let me meet my children,” she says.

Rihana lost her job in last year’s lockdown and is still unemployed. She doesn’t know how to provide for her parents, with whom she now lives.

Working women in India across classes have something in common: They work two jobs — one at the office and another at home. Of course, they have always done so. But the pandemic has put this fact in sharp relief.

The pandemic has hit workers cutting across segments, but women have been the most affected. According to World Bank data released in June 2020, India’s female labour force participation rate fell to 20.3 per cent in 2020, from 30 per cent in 1990. Another report, this one by scholars at the Azim Premji University, highlights the fall in the labour participation of women in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic clamped down on industry.

“We find that… women were seven times more likely to lose work during the nationwide lockdown, and, conditional on losing work, eleven times more likely to not return to work subsequently, compared to men,” says the report Down and Out? The Gendered Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on India’s Labour Market.

Invisible work

The two scourges affecting women workers — the fact that their numbers in the workforce are falling, and that their work at home is not acknowledged — have been underlined by successive studies.

According to Oxfam’s 2020 India inequality report — On Women’s backs — women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day in India, equivalent to contributing ₹19 lakh crore a year to the Indian economy.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures from 2019 show that women in India spend up to 352 minutes per day on domestic work. That is 577 per cent more than men of the household, who typically spend an average of 52 minutes on household chores each day.

The pandemic has only accentuated this reality, so much so that in Tamil Nadu’s recently held elections, one poll promise had everyone talking — a monthly salary to homemakers. While actor-politician Kamal Haasan promised a monthly sum of ₹3,000, other parties caught on to the idea and promised an assured income for women whose vital work goes unacknowledged.

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report supports this approach. “Among the most promising approaches applied by countries that integrated gender-sensitive Covid-19 contingencies were measures that prioritized women’s labour market participation by focusing on unpaid care work, on supporting sectors with larger female representation, and on addressing violence against women in the context of broader social protection and labour market measures through a wide array of policy mechanisms.”

Unpaid labour

India also slipped 28 places in the 2021 Gender Gap Index to rank 140th out of 156 countries. The index ranks countries on four parameters — economic participation, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and survival. The report says that India’s gender equality has mostly been impacted by a decline in the first two indicators.

The impact of this can be seen on the types of roles women are either vacating or excluded from. According to the report, the share of women in professional and technical roles reduced to 29.2 per cent last year from 30.3 per cent the year before. While the share of women in senior and managerial positions also has always been low, currently, only 14.6 per cent of managerial positions are held by women with only 8.9 per cent of firms with female top managers.

Workplace woes

Can workplaces do anything to reverse the trend and make it lucrative for women to stay? DuPont HR vice-president Shaoni Mukhopadhyay, who is experienced in recruitment and talent management, admits that hiring women comes with a set of challenges. “While more women at workplaces are desirable for most companies, it is challenging to fulfil the requirement due to many reasons.”

She holds that women often end up leaving their jobs mid-career to take care of the family. Because of this, she adds, it is not easy to find women who continue in their careers, and reach senior management levels.

Disappearing act: Women often end up leaving their jobs mid-career to take care of the family because the burden of care-giving mostly falls on them   -  SHAJU JOHN

 

But at the same time, she adds, the ultimate selection is always based on merit. ”No one is pushed forward solely on the basis of their gender, especially in leadership roles. And even when a woman is hired, she may have to face the stigma that she was selected as a ‘diversity hire’, which is why workplaces need to keep their process transparent.”

Another problem when it comes to women is that they’re generally considered difficult to transfer to different locations, as many don’t have the option of relocating due to family constraints. She says managers hesitate in putting them in their teams as they fear they wouldn’t be able to put in late hours. Young women are often unfairly treated as people who will sooner or later disappear from the workforce due to matrimony and childcare responsibilities.

“Retaining female candidates is often a challenge, and Covid-19 has not made it easier,” says Mukhopadhyay. “We have attempted to do gender sensitisation workshops which include both genders to discuss problems that our employees are facing to ensure there is parity at the workplace. Women employees participate in anonymous polls where they share any issues they might be facing at the work front regarding their managers. We have shifted away from the manufacturing mindset, and allow flexible timings, as long as deadlines are met. All these initiatives have helped retain women in the workforce.” While diversity hiring has been the buzzword in many a company in its hiring policy, gender imbalance is a common factor, especially in technical sectors, and the few women workers there increasingly deal with a largely masculine workforce.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

So what is the solution to India’s declining gender gap?

Chandrasekhar Sripada, Gloria George and AJ Chauradia, professors at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, conducted an ethnographic study last year of women participating in the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana Scheme (PMKVY) to identify if upskilling could be the solution to India’s declining gender gap. PMKVY is the skill development programme run by the government to help place suitable individuals in the workforce.

The study found that more men than women who participated in the programme ended up with jobs and that women were likely to be paid 3 per cent less than men for the same role. It also found that a woman with higher grades is less likely to be placed than a man with lower grades due to the persisting gender bias.

“The upskilling programme sees a disparity in conversion of skills into jobs based on gender because the courses are designed specifically keeping men in mind,” Sripada says to BLink on the phone. “The most interesting finding of our study was that when there were women trainers, there tended to be more women who ended up in the workforce than with male trainers.”

Many women, he adds, are looking at self-employment. “Our biggest challenge as a society is that the burden of care giving and household work falls entirely on women, so much so that they are pulled out of work. This is the reason they choose self-employment instead of jobs for it allows them to keep flexible timings.”

But entrepreneurship comes with its own challenges. “An entrepreneurial capacity needs to be cultivated in women while they’re being trained. For instance, the willingness to live without a constructive cash flow situation, risk-taking ability, etc. need to be taught to women for them to use their education at PMKVY into something more fruitful,” he says.

Change for the better

Women have to also deal with disparity in incomes. The wage gap puts Indian women at the bottom ten globally, according to the WEF’s Gender Gap Report. The report puts the estimated earned income of women in India at one-fifth that of men.

Efforts are being made in some quarters to bridge the gap. Parineeta Cecil Lakra, country people & culture manager at IKEA India, says the Swedish company navigates the skewed labour force ratios within the organisation.

“IKEA India has followed a gender equal policy in the last seven years, which involves having an equal number of women at all levels. We are aware of the woefully low labour force participation ratio across the country. We believe that access to employment opportunities are basic human rights, and don’t want women to be kept out of the workforce. So we have tried to find women at all levels in our organisation, from forklift drivers to leadership positions,” Lakra says.

The economic benefits of ensuring a balanced workforce are apparent. “We as an industry are driven by women customers, and it really helps to have female staff on the floor,” Lakra says. Customers write in to say how they were impressed by their women staff assembling, for instance, a kitchen within days.

The experts stress that the situation will change for the better when society does. Men sharing housework will mean women being able to devote more time or attention to a job, which in turn can over the years bridge the income and employment gap.

“Until and unless socio-economic change is driven by the society, where men share some of the burden of the women when it comes to caregiving and household chores, it is going to be very difficult to have women participate in the workforce. There have been many studies which point to the loss to the economy with the number of women kept away from the workforce,” says Sripada. A McKinsey study, for instance, claims that US$ 700 billion can be added to the GDP of India if 68 million more women are included in the country’s non-farm workforce by 2025.

Farm hand: A study claims that US$ 700 billion can be added to the GDP of India if 68 million more women are included in the country’s non-farm workforce by 2025   -  THE HINDU/BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

Way Ahead

Mukhopadhyay believes gender sensitisation workshops can encourage male employees to share a woman’s workload at home. Companies can introduce initiatives such as flexible timings, caregiving leave and connecting with top women performers at all levels through anonymous focus groups to understand what kind of problems they face. All these, she adds, can make the work culture healthier and more supportive. “Women leaders need to cultivate and groom women under them, and need male allies to ensure their success. This is a system that gives the best results when it comes to retaining women employees as well as getting them into leadership positions,” says Mukhopadhyay.

“It is not uncommon for us to hear Indian men in offices complain about washing dishes as life post-pandemic. What needs to change is for them to contribute more towards the home so women are freed from the cycle of doing two or more than two full-time jobs,” adds Mukhopadhyay.

Sripada’s study has found that women often choose unfavourable careers as they prioritise their household chores and duties above career options.

“According to some preliminary findings, among those households where women have found adequate support, many are driven to join back into the workforce. With improvement in technology and the changing nature of the workspace, flexible timings and other facilities, workspaces automatically become more conducive for a whole lot of women,” he says. “In whichever homes women get adequate support, it has been seen that women prefer WFH as it offers them a greater control over household duties, or allows them to oversee their kid’s education from home, for instance.”

Covid-19 may have taken away jobs. But many believe that it may open up an opportunity for women in the workforce provided companies, households and the government put in a collected effort in this regard. A gender sensitive economic recovery might hold the key to the future.

Published on April 15, 2021

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