How Covid-19 rejigged gender roles

Anjali Varma | Updated on July 30, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

There seemed to be a more equitable distribution of doemstic responsibilities between men and women as both began to work from home amid the pandemic

There has been a gradual but noticeable trend across professional and personal networks — a sudden spike in videos, snippets and anecdotes of women and men sharing their favorite work from home (WFH) stories. Conversations with colleagues and friends have a common drift — that of deeper empathy and “normalisation” that the lockdown has bestowed on domestic chores. It’s no longer “uncool” to speak about said chores and work in the same breath. What is far more striking, and probably of more long-term significance, is that the domestic chores are no longer automatically ascribed to only one gender.

In 2017, a comic titled You should have asked (2017) by French artist Emma was an eye-opener and was rapidly shared on social media, because here was a voice that echoed the sentiments of half the world’s population. The comic threw light on an unnoticed societal trend without being patronising about it. Its significant revelation was the explanation of the ‘mental load’ women often carry, irrespective of the extent of development of a nation. The comic also revealed how men often view women as the “managers” of the household and expect their partners to ask them to do chores, thereby shifting this load. Eventually, the mental load affects the woman, sometimes at the cost of her career.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown will have far-reaching consequences, and we are just starting to see what these may be. Many social scientists believe that the World Wars had an impact on the way women participated in society, as a whole set of jobs opened up for them. Similarly, this pandemic might just usher in an “equality revolution” at the urban workplace as well as at home. This could significantly change gender equations forever.

‘Mental load’ on women

WFH has long been viewed as an occasional indulgence that should be sparingly and grudgingly “permitted”, often seen as little more than a diversity and inclusion sweetener. While WFH had benefits such as retention, it often also made women feel guilty, indirectly compelling them to overcompensate by working extra hours.

Working women across India have long complained that such an option, aimed primarily for them, could often only be utilised if they offered a specific justification that fit in with social stereotypes of maternal or domestic duties — PTMs, a sudden bandh or a sick child. The need to justify WFH has been ingrained and even normalised. It also fits into a larger cultural trait of disclosing personal details to inquisitive colleagues, whether they are relevant or not.

In the current pandemic, the new work structure which was forced upon all for weeks on end, irrespective of gender, may permanently alter traditional expectations and attitudes, and may lead to a rethink of existing gender dynamics. While there are refreshing examples on social media of men discussing ergonomic advantages of ‘spin mops’, what can really revolutionise the workplace dynamics is the widening of domestic responsibilities, which we saw during the lockdown. If continued, this can influence a work culture where managers are able to understand the complexities of domestic chores and the time that all genders invest in it.

Equal distribution

Managers of the future will be more empathetic, having ‘been there and done that’ for several weeks. Childcare perceptions, often ascribed to the woman, will now be borne by both parents. In a largely traditional society like India, while it is normal for a child to be looked after by domestic help or grandparents, the same ‘burden’ is not expected of the paternal parent, who is considered the primary bread-winner across society and workplaces. When a man asks for a WFH arrangement, he is counseled on the “impact” to their careers, though there are several trail-blazing couples who are equally involved as parents, shattering these stereotypes.

This cuts across sectors and industries, and its echoes are even found in academia, as found in recent research by Wellesley College professor Olga Shurchkov, Tatyana Deryugina from University of Illinois and Jenna Stearns from University of California, Davis. They analysed over 10,000 pre-print and working paper series in economics for 2018-2020, and found that female authorship dropped by 12 per cent in March and by a whopping 20 per cent in April — leading them to ask whether this was attributable to higher care-giving duties because of the lockdown, and further reflecting the invisible burdens that are often placed on women.

However, we can all hope that change may be at hand. There seems to be a more equitable distribution of the mental load now that everyone has worked from home for weeks (and in many sectors, continue to do so). Phrases like “I am helping my wife” may seem out of sync with reality. With both men and women working to keep their homes in running order, often without domestic help, a welcome “unintended consequence” is the effect on those impressionable young minds — the watching children. Role models at home are the first lessons in the way abstract concepts like equality, empathy and justice are understood and internalised.

Oscar Wilde may have been ahead of his time when he said “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.”

In the months to come, we may see gender stereotypes among white-collar employees disintegrate and make way for a more balanced approach, thanks to forced work-from-home. It may lead to lasting change in attitudes among managers, forever influencing the workplace of the distant future.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based human resources consultant

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Published on July 30, 2020
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