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When the workplace is your respite

The workplace can become a space where women hold an identity distinct from the one forced on them at home

Most Indian women prefer a hybrid model and flexibility. (iStockphoto)

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For Jesintha Devaraj, 27, a PhD scholar of translation studies at the University of Hyderabad, working from home proved to be game-changing. “It was difficult,” says the mother of a one-year-old, and it still is as she continues working from home.

As a scholar living on campus before she got married in 2020, Devaraj had regular access to workshops and conferences as well as interaction with her peers, which enhanced her own work. With the pandemic-instigated shift to work from home, along with the distractions that home brought with it, it was also a matter of shifting to an environment where nobody else at home was in the same field as her and therefore didn’t know what that kind of work entailed.

Discussing the future of work post-pandemic, moving to remote work, or some hybrid form of it, may be inevitable. But experts believe an inescapable fallout of the push towards remote work will be a disproportionate burden on women. This, we witnessed during the various stay-at-home mandates: Women found themselves taking on more of the care work when they worked from home.

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Of course, many working Indian women had already been doing the “double shift”, working at their (paid) day job and then managing household affairs, mainly single-handedly, long before the pandemic. A McKinsey report, Women In The Workplace 2022, suggests that women tend to opt for flexible and remote work when given a choice. But the burden brought about by remote work may actually take us back many years in terms of gender parity. In India, already low female labour participation rates dropped to 16.1% during the July-September 2020 quarter, and 15.5% in the quarter right after the pandemic, according to a Reuters story on a report released by the Union ministry of statistics. Although there has been a recent uptick, analysis of the data shows the complexity of the issue, reports IndiaSpend, a media outlet that publishes data journalism on the social and political economy.

Conventionally, in most Indian households, women were required to take care of the family whether or not they went to work. In this context, the workplace, instead of being a place of stress or a place of personal professional growth alone, became a place of respite—an environment where women were free of domestic responsibilities and systemic claims. Work and the workplace become a space where women could explore a selfhood distinct from the network of relationships they are usually enveloped by at home. At work, says Vanshika Goenka, founder of Kool Kanya, a platform and support group for women to network professionally, you “cultivate your own identity as an individual, regardless of who your parents, your husband and your children are. Your workplace becomes just yours—a space and niche to create something of your own.”

“The workplace often provides a lot of space for women to think independently and coherently, without being distracted by the goings-on within the household,” says Sona Mitra, principal economist at IWWAGE, an initiative of LEAD at Krea University, Delhi. “In addition to building a space where they can actually think both productively and creatively, the workspace provides them with a bit of respite from the stresses of the home, because home management can also be very stressful.” While the stresses at the workplace are noticeable, and even compensated for financially, the pressure of managing a house is not often acknowledged, she says.

Work “can allow new solidarities and personhoods to emerge. Work opens new spaces and connections outside the home,” writes Shrayana Bhattacharya in her book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women And The Search For Intimacy And Independence (2021). It gives Indian women a sense of self-dependence, liberation and agency, while also enriching and broadening their worlds. Besides, financial independence lends them the kind of confidence they may not have experienced before, adds Goenka.

It does more. “When I started working, it was because I wanted to be financially independent,” says Shifa F., 29. But there comes a point when you start asking for more out of the work. “Once you have the money in the bank, then it’s more about experiences, seeing the world, experiencing more things, and showing up for more challenging roles,” says the Mumbai-based senior manager in finance at an education company, who is working from the office. At her last job with a pharma multinational, she had the chance to work outside India. “I think after a point, with work, it comes to be about different experiences,” she says.

The workplace especially can connote a place of respite, away from the daily strains, distractions and claims of domesticity. “At the workplace, you are able to concentrate fully on the work at hand, whereas you have to find the time for office work at home. You are still responsible for the household chores,” says Mumbai-based Esmat Shaikh, 57, who works for the government. Shaikh even enjoys the commute to work that enables her to make friends.

You carry an identity of our own when at work that is not always meaningful when at home. “Inside home, I am a mother trying to study something. That is the kind of identity I constantly carry,” says Devaraj. In a library or a scholarly space, she is able not only to focus much better but people too talk to her as a research scholar. As Bhattacharya writes, “We can become daughter-bureaucrats, mother-embroiderers or wife-musicians,” carrying “diversified and hyphenated personhoods” with as much ease as we can muster.

Against this backdrop, the emphasis on remote work seems suspect. Recently, the government called for a push towards work from home, framing it as a way to create opportunities for women in the labour force. Mitra particularly cautions against the over-glorification of this argument, which claims that the work-from-home and hybrid models, developed inadvertently in response to the pandemic, end up giving space and time for women to manage their households in good time. “Continuously working from home blurs away the boundaries of housework and professional work. The day for the woman never ends because she’s constantly working throughout the day,” says Mitra.

Mitra acknowledges the benefits of providing women the chance to work within a timeframe they find comfortable and convenient. To focus, Devaraj tries not to study in her own flat. Instead, she has found herself a communal space—an occupied reception area—within her residential community. She uses it for a few hours, and is home again. Sometimes, she even makes the trip to university for a few days a month “to bring myself back in the same mentality of working on my project. Otherwise, it tends to get very boring and monotonous.”

Most Indian women do prefer a hybrid model and flexibility, citing reduced travel time and being able to spend time at home as unprecedented benefits. Women are also jumping jobs for greener, flexibility-offering pastures, although whether or not that encourages more women to join the workplace needs a closer look. The key, according to the McKinsey report, is enabling agency and choice for women when it comes to flexible work rather than applying the one-size-fits-all method. Enforcing the blurring of the two realms of housework and work—aspects that are very much part of a woman’s life—and propagating work from home as something tailor-made for women, however, would mean creating “a superwoman out of a simple woman, (which) is not the way out,” as Mitra puts it.

Mumbai-based Tasneem Pocketwala writes on culture, identity, gender, cities and books.

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