The COVID-19 crisis has engendered another shadow pandemic: Is it dawn or dusk for women at work?

The UN has said that the COVID-19 crisis has engendered a shadow pandemic and women are more likely to be its victims. It is obvious that the global crisis has had a disproportionately negative effect on women and their employment opportunities, and these effects are likely to outlast the actual epidemic.

COVID-19 crisis exacerbates shadow pandemic- Is it a dawn or dusk for women at work

When we talk about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we often miss the larger picture. Most discussions about the economy, industries, businesses, losses, and opportunities are gender blind. We also ignore the fact that the pandemic has hugely impacted human relationships and only exacerbated and highlighted the differential treatment meted out to women in Indian society.

We watched how people, mostly women, were forced out of the labour market. On top of that, they experienced increased domestic violence while they shouldered the bulk of the responsibilities at home, doing household chores and caregiving where the boundaries of professional and personal space got blurred.

Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director of Population Foundation of India in an interview with Databaaz, says the impact was 360 degrees on the female fraternity. If I sum up her statement, healthcare facilities were halted, which meant no contraceptives, unplanned pregnancies, and no immunization for children. Increased household chores along with professional work all the while locked up with perpetrators of the violence resulted in an increase in cases of domestic violence. School shutdowns caused girls to do a lot more work at home. Also, even if the means of online education were available, they suffered due to poor connectivity and partiality within their own families. Lastly, mental health also deteriorated due to all these factors.

Arguably, this impact would not have been so widespread and severe if social and gender inequality did not already exist in society. The lockdowns due to the pandemic have served only to exacerbate gender inequalities and limited the opportunities for women, hence, the impact on them has been greater.

A recent study commissioned by UN Women in 38 countries including India, shows that while both women and men have seen a rise in their unpaid workload, women are still responsible for the major share of it. Women are also taking up more care related tasks, parents are getting more help from daughters and more women are leaving their jobs due to increased workload.

Even women in top senior positions have been observing this negative trend.

Hanadi Khalife, Senior Director, MEA & India Operations at Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) spoke to us, “Every year sees the release of multiple new studies analysing the professional gap between genders and emphasising the continued disparity that women face and have to deal with within the workplace. The economic fallout due to the pandemic furthered this gap as working women emerged as more vulnerable during the crisis, bearing the brunt of layoffs and a displaced work-life balance.”

“The stereotypes which have always existed have become more prominent during the pandemic than over the recent few years, where there had been an increased focus on gender equality,” says Surga Thilakan, CEO and Co-Founder at Salesken, an AI start-up.

“While the entire world has been impacted because of the pandemic, women have been more prone to deteriorating mental and physical well-being. There is a pronounced need to address these issues and ensure that the progress that has been made over the years towards gender equality is not lost,” she adds.


The untold truth

Even if times have changed and women are standing shoulder to shoulder with men in every field, they continue to face many challenges.

The CMIE-Consumer Pyramid Household Survey data substantiates what the industry has already been saying all along. The numbers put forth by this research serve to corroborate this obvious trend. It states that on the labour front, it was always more challenging for women workers, even in normal times.

Talking about India, only 9 per cent of all women of working age are employed while it is 67 per cent for men. Just imagine the gap in India’s workforce, given that India is a patriarchal society and men are still the primary breadwinners in Indian households.

Interestingly, as a second earner, women often are less likely to take up inferior job offers, if it is not a necessity. The formal and informal jobs sectors have a vast difference in India, which makes it more difficult for women to secure a good job. CMIE states, “The labour participation rate for women is very low at less than 11 per cent compared to 71 per cent for men. They face a much higher unemployment rate of 17 per cent compared to 6 per cent for men. The much fewer women who seek work find it much harder to find work compared to men. This is disconcerting as it suggests a bias against employing women.”

This was just a brief pre-pandemic analysis. The employment scenario has further plummeted for women in India during the pandemic.

According to CMIE, women accounted for 10.7 per cent of the workforce in 2019-20 but they suffered 13.9 per cent of the job losses in April 2020, the first month of the lockdown. By November 2020, men recovered most of their lost jobs, but women were less fortunate. 49 per cent of the job losses by November were for women.

The subsequent economic recovery has benefitted all but it has benefitted women less than men.

“The pandemic and its economic impact have had negative repercussions for everyone, more so for women,” says Thilakan of Salesken.

Citing a latest Mckinsey report she says, “Women are twice as susceptible to job losses as compared to men, even though women account for only 39 per cent of global employment.

Additionally, the time that women spend on family duties has increased by an estimated 30 per cent in India. There has also been an inordinate impact on women owned SME’s and MSME’s in the country due to scarce and shared resources at homes such as digital devices.”

Chulamas Jitpatima, Country Director, MQDC India puts forth her views on this, “This period has had a dramatic effect on women’s lives, and not just professionally. With numerous instances of domestic issues, divorce and separation rates increased as well. Staying confined amidst the lockdown without regulated channels of emotional outlets have taken a toll on all individuals, especially women across the world,”

Thilakan feels that women’s responsibilities have increased during this period of crisis both mentally and physically, but it is unfortunate that they are not given enough credit.

“The overall impact has been skewed when it comes to gender equality and there is due credit that needs to be given to women, especially the ones who support themselves and their families with meagre wages and working mothers who had to take on additional caregiving responsibilities. There is a definite need to focus on harnessing the power of women as we look forward to a period of recovery, “she avers.

Women are indispensable

Did you know that women contribute 37 per cent of the global GDP?

Moreover, all types of women’s care work, including unpaid work generate USD 11 trillion globally i.e., 9 per cent of the global GDP. Now imagine the world and the economy without women.

Deploying women’s full potential is critical to economic recovery and to ensure a better world beyond COVID-19. Improved representation of women within India Inc. will promote the sustainable, balanced, and inclusive growth of the country.

And that is what most women leaders we spoke to believe in.

“Women with their sensitivity and higher emotional quotient have a key role to play in the revival of businesses and a sustainable economic recovery in the post pandemic world. Women have an unconventional yet emotional perspective which can contribute to greater affluence and growth,” says Priya Singh Dubey, Chief People Officer and Co-Founder, Chalo, a Bus Transport Technology Company.

“Most businesses have had to rethink their business strategy and long-term goals post the pandemic. It is therefore important for businesses to ensure that these existing gender inequalities are addressed and involve more women to be part of the solution for greater sustainability and resilience. There are enough examples to show that more women in the workforce leads to diversity of thinking in the workplace and makes better economic sense leading to growth,” she adds.

Surga Thilakan putting forth her views tells us, “Women have an important role to play for the country in its path to post pandemic recovery. Even before the pandemic, India ranked significantly low on the global scale when it came to the participation of women in the workforce and the pandemic has caused further setbacks to the same. We have major challenges to address to ensure that we do not lose out on the progress that we have made when it comes to gender equality. However, with proper measures and safeguards for women, I believe that women across the world will be able to claim their stake in rebuilding the world,”

On a similar note, Yogita Tulsiani, Director and Co-founder, iXceed Solutions feels, “Women can play an important role in promoting diversity in the work culture by putting themselves upfront. As they balance life and work and have a clear vision of the objectives in their lives that motivate them to forge ahead,”

According to Tulsiani, the pandemic has taught everyone a lesson of not taking even the simplest things for granted. The world is moving towards attaining a proper balance between work and life. Also, people are much more active in sustaining their work and enjoying the shorter workdays, especially women. She says, “Women are redefining the work culture by bringing diversification to the working environment. They should utilise the capability and skill sets acquired due to the remote working scenario to make the workplace better. Streamlining processes and introducing efficiency by bringing empathy to the workplace culture,”

Getting back into the post-pandemic work game

Women were impacted in profound ways due to the pandemic. Simultaneously, juggling a career and expanded duties at home and other challenges has taken a tremendous toll on the daily lives of women. Meanwhile, many have lost their jobs.

It is a known fact that the re-entry for women at work after a sabbatical or job loss is a struggle. In the case of India, the struggles get tougher with family responsibilities, expectations and what not added on. Hence, it will be a gargantuan task to get back to the previous levels of employment, given that there are more unemployed people than the number of available jobs post the pandemic.

So far, the recovery has been unequal. It is high time that the think-tanks put their heads together to analyse the situation and come up with solutions to create awareness on bringing back women to work.

We also asked women CXOs and executives from various industries to comment on what women can do to get back to the post-pandemic work game and to gather insights on the topic.

“One of the biggest lessons from the pandemic that women need to imbibe is that she can’t play all roles- as a mother, as a homemaker, as a daughter, as a wife- to perfection all the time,” says Dubey of Chalo in response to this question.

However, she feels that their focus should be on how to build the confidence of playing all these roles in the best possible way without compromising on their mental and physical health. “She needs to understand and accept that it is not her sole responsibility to make all things right,” she advises.

She further adds, “Women who shifted their focus to less demanding jobs need to remember their past achievements and rebuild their confidence to take on new roles. The focus should be on long-term goals rather than survival. Women most often create their own mental barriers and limit themselves. This needs a relook and a renewed focus on how she can be a game changer and create her own path.”

At a time when women are dropping out of the labour market in droves, Jitpatima of MQDC suggests that upskilling is the only tool to stay ahead in the game. “The only way to get back to a post-pandemic work culture and to catch up fast is to utilise this time to upskill, enrol in supporting courses and certifications and try and do freelance work that can add heft to one’s profile, “she says.

From the employers’ end, she hopes that organisations ensure better gender equity with equal opportunities for women, equal pay for women across all levels along with supportive policies and an infrastructure that supports the needs of women.

One of the major challenges for women across the globe during this time is to manage work along with domestic responsibilities, which drains their energy and takes a toll on them. This issue demands prompt attention, and one of the ways to address it is flexible work hours or hybrid work policies in India Inc.

Meanwhile, industries feel that the pandemic has granted us the right opportunity to deal with these challenges and we are seeing the change it has brought about.

Thilakan of Salesken also thinks the same. She says the pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to redefine the growth charter for the country’s growth and ensure a more inclusive environment. “We need to start by creating an enabling environment for the female workforce to get back to work,” she says.

“We need to negate the adverse effects that the pandemic has had on women-led microbusinesses and women employees across all strata of society, which has led to a widening of the socio-economic gap and hastened the economic downturn. There is also a need for organisations to explore a gradual shift towards flexible work models, satellite offices and a mix of full-time employees and gig workers to ensure active contribution from women to the workforce and to ensure less dropouts. Most importantly, all these solutions need to be long lasting rather than just being a temporary intervention because of the pandemic,” she elaborates.

Jyotsna Uttamchandani, Executive Director at Syska advocates for this trend too. She tells us that the hybrid work model can relieve stress for female professionals, as they juggle with work and home, which often seems equivalent to doing two shifts.

“In my opinion it has become imperative to cultivate a hybrid working environment that is gender and individual friendly. This can definitely open up opportunities for women who were initially not allowed to work due to the sociocultural norms in India,” she concludes.

The new normal is just an opportunity to re-skill, re-work and re-organise oneself. Unanimously, most feel that the post-pandemic timeframe is very favourable to grow as a professional.

In the case of women professionals, it is a completely new environment to work in. Riddhi Shah, Business Manager at ShortJobs, a talent hiring company who has been observing the latest trends comments, “We have all faced issues with the re-opening of the sectors. But I would like to say that the new normal is the best time to get into the game of work as women are getting so many options like flexible hours at work or alternative days at the office or work from home options. The only thing that women need to change is to adapt to the given circumstances and change their own mindset, which in turn will help to build up their confidence at work.”

Look at the bright side

We cannot deny the fact that everything has its positive and negatives.

Living in a gender unequal world has always been a challenge for women in the economic ecosystem. Even then, much has changed, and women are displaying their talents on all fronts now.

Also, for some the pandemic has been a time of opportunity.

Women are surfacing as solopreneurs, mompreneurs, bloggers, writers, and chefs among many other things. The post pandemic landscape is motivating them to rebuild their careers and seek out new professional opportunities. Overall, a combo of technological advancements and changing mindsets along with renewed ambitions is giving wings to women.

On this, Uttamchandani, shares with us what she has observed, “Last year, I saw so many of my women friends take up their passions for baking, cooking or even writing during the lockdown and they are now running full-fledged businesses. With the rising inclination towards e-commerce and availability of technology and services such as Dunzo, WeFast, Genie etc., women can materialise their ideas and passions into concrete business opportunities. As I say, pessimists see the difficulty in every opportunity, while an optimist always sees the opportunity in every roadblock. So, we as women must be those optimists who find opportunities in adversities.”

Jitpatima who had to move back to her native place during the lockdown, tells us that this period of crisis pushed us to learn new things along with how to adjust to circumstances.

“As a Thai national I had to move back home and away from my team in India. While the distance has been a challenge, we ensured that work continued as usual besides engaging proactively with my teams on a regular basis. Though it was not a major challenge, we were able to adapt to the current situation and make the best out of it, “she says.

Khalife of IMA comments that with hybrid and remote working becoming a reality, women should look at reskilling themselves to meet the new workforce requirements. “Many organisations are now outsourcing more work to gig workers, many of whom are women. Employers need to focus on more affirmative action both within the workplace and outside of it to ensure greater gender parity. Within the workplace too, women need to be mentored better to keep pace with the new and emerging requirements of the new economy,” she says.

And talking about getting back to the workstations, this is what Shah of ShortJobs had decided for herself during the pandemic, and now she feels fulfilled.

She tells us, “I was a homemaker and during the pandemic I restarted my career as a business development manager in ShortJobs. Due to the pandemic, the working hours have always been very flexible, which allows me to balance my family life and work life. By being able to start working again there is an immense sense of happiness and satisfaction.”

However, everyone is not so privileged.

As a UN policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women mentioned in its report, “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protection and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men.” 

A large segment of women in India is still devoid of advancements and opportunities, particularly in semi-urban, rural regions.

Hence, it is imperative for women in India to lift each other up.

Women need to play a critical role in protecting and empowering other women. Be it eradicating gender biases or developing new policies for health and financial protection focused on women, or even driving the need for resources available to women in industries. Women together must work towards ensuring informal and formal support towards other women workers by providing grants, funds, resources, and access to run women led businesses. Only then can we engender and look forward to an equal future.

Hope you too will think about it!