Covid Chronicles | Part 3 – Women & Work: When the Invisible becomes Visible!

Toru Jhaveri | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

The dilemmas of women who pull in double shifts at home and work are being seen and felt at scale by male colleagues

Like many urban Indians living in lockdown, you might have received Whatsapp videos or photos of men in your peer groups and families engaged in domestic tasks in which they have never before indicated much interest — cleaning, laundry, meal prep, doing the dishes. There are war stories about wrestling bartans and battling dustballs being exchanged on Zoom calls. The efforts are well-intentioned, and the expected response to them is to laugh and acknowledge an important step taken towards helping out.

Dabbling in domesticity is no longer enough

The pandemic poses problems for everyone, and it is no one’s argument that these problems are equalisers. But one of the circumstances unique to affluent urban Indians is the almost complete disruption of the support systems they have long relied on to keep their homes running smoothly. Cooks, cleaners, drivers and sundry errand-runners in many cities are stuck at home, just like their employers. Which means that these households are reckoning with the rigours of domestic labour as part of their new normal. Recreational cooks, self-styled chefs and hobbyist cleaners (men and women both) have to not just up their game, but bring it everyday. Schedules are in disarray and chores need to be distributed and re-distributed.

The invisible is now Insta-worthy

What does it say that one person’s invisible normal is another’s Insta-moment? If many upper-class men are stepping up now , it is because they have been on the fringes of household management and maintenance all this time, content to relinquish the lion’s share of the work to the women in their lives. We are a country in which women engage in up to 352 minutes of unpaid domestic and care work everyday (Oxfam India, 2019: Mind the Gap - The State of Employment in India). It is inarguable that the burden of this statistic falls disproportionately on women who are poor and marginalised. And it is also true that inequities persist in our largest cities. There is a quick and convenient casualisation of the domestic work done even by women of privilege and with access to social capital — evocatively captured by a laundry detergent brand that reminds people it can be used by all sexes.

At an individual level, acknowledging and may be even thanking those who have shrugged off their gender and class-conditioning to wield a dust-pan and broom seems perfectly appropriate – the nice thing to do and the right thing to do. But at the level of the collective, the congratulatory videos and celebratory selfies only seem to reinforce our gendered assumptions around house work.

Inherent in the idea of ‘chipping in’ is the fact that it is a specific response to a specific stimulus — not one that’s built to last. When will task allocation morph into a shouldering of responsibilities? How is labour distributed when both partners work, and are the kudos equally distributed? How might personal epiphanies around the demands of domestic work percolate into something more concrete and long-lasting? These are, after all, issues that have the potential to shape everything from the framing of the national census, to the wage gap.

WFH and the litmus test we never saw coming

Which is where corporations and businesses might end up offering answers — both intentionally and unintentionally. Work-from-home, a new experience for so many of us, has been a fact for many creative, media and IT professionals. It’s a model that’s been championed as enabling individual flexibility, control and productivity, and has been implemented by companies to maximise efficiencies and minimise costs. It has also been offered as a solution to workplace inclusion, allowing parents (typically mothers) to stay engaged with their jobs.

But work-from-home has its critics, and it’s safe to say that the language and policy-making around it have been largely bloodless, assuming that employees will work under controlled circumstances, scrubbed off the wrinkles of life at home – an inherently masculine perspective that requires women to put domestic priorities on mute, literally. I remember a colleague (a new mother at the time) once telling me she almost ‘died of embarrassment’ on a call because the pressure cooker went off in the background.

An uneasy truce

That was 2015. This is now. Pressure cookers, televisions and hissed instructions are part of the soundtrack of our conference calls. Zoom backgrounds can mask our homes visually and give us a little privacy if that’s what we want, but there’s no denying the fact that as co-workers, we’re visiting each other every single day, like it or not. We have encountered one another’s unsuspecting partners, spills and messes, arthritic cats and noisy toddlers. The shifting and demanding landscape of our home lives has been revealed, and workplace policy will be hard-pressed to deny these realities.

Suddenly, a run to the society sabzi truck is a perfectly valid reason to reschedule a meeting. We have shown each other our dishevelled, pre-coffee faces. Deadlines are being negotiated keeping in mind a number of new variables. Work-life balance remains elusive. Women — hugely under-represented in the Indian workforce — are visibly pulling double shifts. And for perhaps the first time, their dilemmas are being seen and even felt at scale by male colleagues.

Reconciling competing demands

The pandemic will not necessarily usher in any immediate revolutions. But it has forced corporations to encounter their employees as not just professionals, but people. Organisational culture is being put to the test. Which teams and companies are truly willing to empathise and adapt, and which ones are unyielding? The limits to conventional corporate jargon and so-called people-first practices are being exposed. It’s clear that genuine flexibility, greater control over hours and workflows, and an acknowledgement of the competing demands of work and life stand to benefit everyone. Long-held but newly emphasised needs and expectations could very well be the beginning of larger shifts, triggered either by industry leaders or by governments with a renewed interest in protecting workforces and preserving incomes.

By locating work firmly in the home, the novel coronavirus has given us the uncomfortable gift of encountering simmering contradictions. The privileged amongst us are not just working from home, but simultaneously working at home. Things that were gendered and therefore treated as distinct are now a shared domain. We are witnessing each other’s challenges and jugglery, even if to a limited extent. It’s an unsettling way of working and living and perhaps the experience we needed in order to advocate for ways of working that are better for more of us (if not yet all of us). Our homes have the opportunity to transform our work.

This bi-weekly column is part of DDB Mudra Group’s Covid Chronicles project, which explores changes in culture and consumers during the pandemic. Led by Toru Jhaveri and authored by a team of strategists (Aditya, Ellina, Nandan & Somdatta), COVID Chronicles draws on a mix of proprietary tools and is updated every week. For updates check @ddbearshot on Instagram

Published on May 07, 2020
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