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Opinion: The future of women's work

What will it take to get men to participate equally in fulfilling domestic responsibilities?

Some experts believe remote work will grow and women will benefit the most from it.istockphoto
Some experts believe remote work will grow and women will benefit the most from it.istockphoto

When Subarna Ghosh’s husband shared her petition with his friends and colleagues, one of them asked, “You have been troubling your wife so much she had to ask the prime minister for help?"

Ghosh’s petition, published earlier this month, is titled “PM Modi: Tell Indian Men to Do an Equal Share of Household Chores in Your Next Speech".

“If Mr Modi can inspire us to light lamps and clap in solidarity, he can inspire us to correct an unfair norm that discriminates against women in every home," it says. Most of us require no further explanation.

When her husband shared it, one gent asked, “What does your wife expect the PM to do about this?" Ghosh’s husband had an answer: “There are more Modi bhakts than there are biwi bhakts."

Some friends were reluctant to own up to the fact that ever since Narendra Modi announced a sudden, stringent lockdown on 24 March that devastated the workforce, leaving one in four employed people jobless (according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy), women have overwhelmingly borne the burden of domestic and unpaid care responsibilities.

Ghosh experienced it first-hand when the weight of running the household settled firmly on her, giving her no time to work on the fledgling healthcare startup she had founded.

“We thought we were different but now there’s the realization that not much has changed between our lives and our mothers’," she says.

Ghosh’s goal is simple: Ask the PM to use the lockdown to amplify an important issue. “It’s not just about him asking men. For years we have struggled to make the state acknowledge that this is productive work."

This discussion is playing out across the world as feminists worry that the pandemic might push back women’s struggle for independence by a few decades. In India, women already spend a disproportionate amount of their time on invisible work. Unpaid care work makes up 35% of GDP or 182% of the total tax revenue, non-profit ActionAid said in 2017.

Even in a booming economy, we struggled to deal with the problem of women dropping out of the workplace. Some 21.7 million women stopped working in the five years to 2009-10, according to government data. Post the economic burden that the lockdown placed on an already depressed economy, women’s fight to stay in the workplace—while managing children who are unlikely to go back to school soon and running the home with less help for a variety of reasons—just got tougher.

“Women are the worst receivers of a tanking economy. Anyway you are standing last in queue. And the problem of women’s workforce numbers is nobody’s job," says Sairee Chahal, pointing out that there’s no secretary-level bureaucrat in any of three government ministries—women and child welfare, skills and commerce—to track these numbers.

At SHEROES, the women’s community platform that Chahal founded in 2014, the helpline queries have moved from general topics to calls from women who want to discuss anxiety and abuse. As families stay home more, domestic abuse has risen across the world.

“In the short term it’s going to be very, very hard for women but it will give many the confidence to use new tools. Women will start helping themselves, we can’t wait for other people to give us jobs," says Chahal.

Adds Neha Bagaria, founder of online job portal JobsForHer, “Given that companies have figured out how to make Work From Home work, we are seeing many more opportunities opening up for women."

Chahal believes that in the long term, two things are likely to happen.

Remote work will grow and women will benefit the most from it; and women will embrace the internet faster. You have already seen this latter phenomenon unfold on your social networks—every girlfriend with a skill is attempting to monetize her ideas online.

“When more women start adopting the internet, it will change a lot of things for them. Millions of women will become micro-entrepreneurs in the next couple of years," says Chahal.

Osama Manzar has helped create 10,000 digital entrepreneurs since 2007 (80% of them women) through the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) that believes digital literacy is the path to greater socioeconomic equality.

DEF has already moved some of its learning programmes with rural women and schoolgirls in Assam and Telangana online. Manzar believes the way we have defined our lives through work, earning, the economy will all have to be redefined. “Localization instead of globalization is one solution in this reset," he says. “I see a more modest supply chain but bigger localized dependency on each other which is trust-based. Even e-commerce will have to become more localized."

Some women have already switched track. In the pre-covid era, Gurugram resident Shweta Rai was a personal trainer who had a tie-up with a fitness chain. But gyms were the first to shut down and taking her skill online only allowed her to earn a fraction of what she made earlier. Now she is the co-founder of Krishak Agritech Pvt. Ltd, which sells seasonal fruits and vegetables sourced from nearby farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan and promises same day delivery to her 300 clients. Her goal? To go hyperlocal from as many Delhi neighbourhoods as she can.

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, Mansi Charan, who went back to a full-time job in mid-March after a break of several years, is struggling to juggle her responsibilities. “Overnight I became a full-time cook, maid, mother and employee," she says. “I wanted to get out and meet people and get some financial independence but…." She’s trying to figure out whether she should keep working or just quit.

Chahal knows the new and parallel track of micro-entrepreneurs and remote workers won’t address any of the battles women have been fighting these past years, such as more of us in leadership positions and greater diversity in the corporate workplace. I guess we will have to go back to tackling these issues after the present crisis has been addressed.

The future of work for women might be a little less bleak if men agree to reskill too and take equal ownership of household responsibilities rather than magnanimously making the morning tea every once in a while.

At 10.30pm, after all the chores were done for the day, Ghosh would go up to the terrace to grab some time away from her family. “I realized there were five, six other women in my building society who were also there. We were all talking about the same thing…everyone was struggling." So the next time Ghosh had a brainstorming session on Zoom with members of the online petition site’s She Creates Change community, she interrupted people discussing “important" ideas with, “I am sick of bartan, jhadu pocha…"

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