In the near-middle of the year 2020, as India’s skies were overcast by the clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the dispossessed, the already-disadvantageous groups that suffered the hardest misery. The situation was understandably worse for working women, those leading corporate lives, and ambitious women entrepreneurs who had to deal with the double workload.
The 2021 Opportunity Index Report by LinkedIn highlights that more than 40% of women have reportedly been affected by the unnatural development of dual workload. In a report released by the World Bank in June 2020, female labour force participation in India fell to 20.3% in 2020 from 30% in 1990. Estimates became grimmer after the onset of the pandemic. It was found that women were 7 times more likely to lose employment due to lockdown and 11 times more likely than men not to return to work after the subsistence of the crisis and restoration of assumed normalcy. Most of these women reportedly gave up on their own, mid-pandemic.
Yet another grave statistic by the CMIE Report of November 2020 showed that labour force contractions among urban women increased to a sweeping 27.2% as compared to 2.8% for urban men. For urban women, total employment in India also reduced by 22.83% between November 2019 and 2020.
As scenic frames of pedestrian migrant workers rallying home went viral on social media, the blaring silence over the question of female rural-to-urban migrants in academia became evident. Women at diverse and challenging workplaces, thus, have been subject to a fate of wilful ignorance, intentional or otherwise, and while debates on their empowerment are occasionally loud, data, and mostly the lack of it, suggests that it might all be a sham.
The situation is no better for the more skilled female workforce. In 2021, the condition of the country’s female workforce has worsened. India has decimated by no less than 28 places in the 2021 Gender Gap Index and has been accorded the rank of 140 out of 156 countries, specifically based on the level of its women’s economic participation and political empowerment. It’s not as if the progress was admirable in pre-pandemic times - as per World Economic Forum, efforts to decrease economic parity could take 257 years, then. This was when the pandemic hadn’t already exacerbated the erstwhile situation. Numbers also highlight the significant impact of the pandemic-induced lockdown on working women, with the share of women in professional, technical, and managerial roles at a rampant decline.
More than these numbers, however, it’s the stories that speak more sharply about devastation, decimation, and loss of old, independent lives. For women, breaking the glass ceiling of familial and economic constraints to become masters of their destinies had come hard in developing societies. For first-generation female graduates, perhaps rebels of their kinds, or even housewives seeking financial independence or bringing home an extra source of income, education, and employment have mattered like no other modality ever did. Their workplaces have stood tall as edifices representing extraordinary levels of social and economic agency at the face of variables way beyond their control.
Conventionally, the workplace has been both honorifics, recognising the merit in female participation. It has risen to the occasion as one of the only true modern pillars that held the might to emancipate women from the stranglehold of a male-dominated economy. It has cemented new aspirations for women and pushed them to stand neck-to-neck with their male counterparts in the new capitalist order of the liberal and the free.
But analysts believe that this pillar might have been crippled from its foundational base in these times of crisis, especially for females holding on to it for anchorage. Noticeably, this grind has emerged from within, with women in India and abroad reporting discrimination at the workplace due to added responsibilities in the work-from-home setup, having to put up a balancing act as work has compounded with obligations at home. As the hitherto scattered family got locked indoors, with the male bread earners losing jobs, and children either attending online classes or dropping out, the women, primary custodians of domestic life in India, were hit by a disproportionate burden of care. With the workplace merging with the domestic field of rest and recreation, the woman has been pushed at the forefront of expectations and responsibility, toiling in labour that doesn’t even go recognised.
The predicament has further worsened with the increase in cases of domestic violence against women, as reported by the NCB, with the onset of national and local lockdowns. By effect, the women of India, even urban, educated, independent women, have undergone numerous untold sufferings, as the coronavirus poked holes in their pockets and the society disemboweled their very will to pull through harder times.
Invariably so, the first step towards empowering women would be recognising their tangible ordeals. Too many of them remain anecdotal for the lack of academic or policy intervention to gauge their real statistical worth. It is also essential that the state ropes in more the existing organised corporate structures to introduce empathetic labour policies, particularly from a gender lens. While the recognition of invisible household chores comes with its own set of complexities and while it's difficult to catalyse interventions in the domestic sphere, the structured and easy-to-amend work sectors must initiate change to help rebuild the lost morale of India’s women. GoI’s existing skill-building programmes, such as the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana scheme (PMKVY) must be entrenched uniformly across our urban spheres, identifying capable and determined women and cultivating in them the entrepreneurial appetite to create their jobs and responsibilities as the economy undergoes repair.
Finally, the change must erupt from within us. Work must be shared responsibly by all as women move outdoors. Stakeholders need to become together to prioritize education and health for women; actualise women empowerment through increased representation; push for inclusive development because only then a nation of 1.3 billion can dream to #MakeWayforHer.
(Tanya Singh is the Director, IPE Global Limited. Views are personal)