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Women wait for a bus as offices reopen after the lockdown in Delhi. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
Women wait for a bus as offices reopen after the lockdown in Delhi. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Can covid-19 change the work culture at home for men and women?

The pandemic locked even more Indian women out of the workforce. Their return will depend partly on whether the upheaval forces men to bear an equal share of housework

If there’s one line that most conversations between women begin with these days—mothers and daughters, interviewees and interviewers, friends, sisters-in-law—it’s usually this one: “How are you managing?"

It isn’t the same as “Are you okay?" One woman is not checking if the other is floundering, but is acknowledging that many women are having to perform multiple roles simultaneously, a feat of juggling that has been precarious at best, and impossible at worst. Across the world, the hours spent on housework and care-work have grown for both men and women, but for women they have grown from a much higher base, creating an unprecedented double burden for working women. In India, new evidence indicates, this has happened alongside a greater loss of employment for women, and within the context of deeply unequal gender norms.

Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/ Mint
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Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/ Mint

Indian women went into this crisis from a position unlike most places in the world. India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world and this cohort has only been growing smaller; explanations range from the role of unequal gender norms and issues of safety to a combination of economic and sociological factors, adding up to women being clustered in slow-growing sectors of the economy.

Research in the UK has found that women are more likely to work in sectors particularly affected by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, including hospitality, retail and tourism. Using nationally representative data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s (CMIE’s) Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) database of 170,000 households, Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University in Haryana, found that the absolute number of men who reported having lost employment in April was much larger than the number of women who reported losing their jobs; over 100 million men lost jobs, against 17 million women. But this is in large part due to the larger share of men in the paid workforce. In percentage terms, the fall in employment among men was 29%, compared with a figure of 39% for women. Four out of every 10 women who were working during the last year lost their jobs during the lockdown, Deshpande found. (Many of these jobs will return, though how many will return to women is uncertain; while the gender-wise break-up is not yet known, of the 117 million jobs lost in April, 21 million had returned by May, Deshpande notes.)

Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint
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Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint

Indian women went into this crisis from a position unlike most places in the world. India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world and this cohort has only been growing smaller; explanations range from the role of unequal gender norms and issues of safety to a combination of economic and sociological factors, adding up to women being clustered in slow-growing sectors of the economy.

The lockdown saw a large increase in the time women were spending on housework and childcare
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The lockdown saw a large increase in the time women were spending on housework and childcare (Photo: Alamy)

Other surveys and data sources have implied similar findings. In an online survey conducted jointly, Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, US, and Ravinder Kaur, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, found that from an already high base, there was a large increase in the time women were spending on housework and childcare. From 55% of women doing the cooking before the lockdown, 79% were now doing the cooking, for instance. Their sample being urban and well-off, most of the increase came from women substituting for the work that paid domestic workers had been doing for the household before covid-19.

The double burden is real

India’s labour statistics do a poor job of capturing the paid and unpaid work performed by educated, better-off women in big cities, precisely because they are, as measured against the Indian labour market as a whole, so rare. But from conversations with a range of women (all of whom—and their interviewer—needed to schedule and reschedule multiple times around their household responsibilities to be able to set up calls), it is clear that although domestic arrangements are as varied as there are families, the double burden of paid and unpaid work of the last few months has been very real.

C. Sugumari, 56, heads the virology department at the state-run Madurai Medical College and spends her day overseeing covid-19 test reports. She can count the number of days she has had off since March on the fingers of one hand. For the first few months, she was returning home close to 9 every night. This meant “waking up extra early to make lunch" for herself and her radiologist husband, she says, and putting in extra hours to separately wash and disinfect her work clothes.

Sugumari’s son studies overseas, so for her the balancing act was between increased paid working hours and unpaid housework. For D.V.L. Padma Priya, the 38-year-old co-founder and editorial lead of Suno India, an audio storytelling platform, it was paid work and childcare. Before covid-19, her four-year-old daughter went to kindergarten and daycare, with Padma Priya and her co-founder husband Rakesh both working full-time. Since the lockdown, she has had to deal with a month-long debilitating mystery illness, maternal guilt about whether she is doing enough crafting with her daughter, and running a company. “It’s hard enough working from home with a kid—now imagine having to answer her questions while doing audio recordings for work!" she laughs. The sight of Korea expert Robert Kelly being interrupted by his children during a live interview with the BBC in 2017 is now a warm memory—but no one wants that happening to them.

For R.T., a recently separated lawyer with a young son, the full weight of the double burden is around the corner. The last few months have involved sheltering at home in Delhi with the nanny, whose family lives in Siliguri. As restrictions lift, the young woman wants to go home for a delayed summer break. “I am booking the train ticket but my heart sank," R.T. says on the phone. “With her, I didn’t miss an extra pair of hands as much. When she leaves, I am going to truly know what it’s like to be a single mum," she says.

A view of the women’s coach in a Delhi Metro before the covid-19 outbreak brought service to a halt.
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A view of the women’s coach in a Delhi Metro before the covid-19 outbreak brought service to a halt.

Among women for whom paid work dried up, unpaid work grew exponentially, bringing with it its own new stresses. Divya Raju, 32, ran a modest second-hand book importing business from a “loft godown" in her parents’ house in Chennai, which allowed her to do some paid work while also being a stay-at-home mother to her four-year-old daughter. Her husband works for a software company. With the lockdown came a slowdown in business, delayed payments, a husband who was at home but was required to be on video calls all day, a homebound child who needed engagement and a part-time cleaner unable to come in. “I think this period has been the hardest for women," she says. “The one business that is going to thrive is psychiatrists," she says, wryly.

R. Kikhon, 26, worked in a hair salon in Bengaluru before the lockdown sent her back home to Kohima, where she hadn’t lived since 2016. “It’s back to filling buckets of water and sorting out wood for the kitchen. It’s tiring and I had hoped that I had left this behind," she says, resentful that the work her father and brother had helped out with while she was away has been seamlessly passed back to her on her return.

If much of this sounds like so much more of the same, it isn’t. Or, at least, it has the potential to be different.

A war-time truce

In India, there seem to be some signs of gaps narrowing, some increase in men’s participation in housework and childcare, and some signs that a moment of reckoning, if not here yet, is that much closer.

There is little doubt that Indian women were doing more of the housework and childcare than men, both before and after the covid-19 outbreak. According to the CMIE database, Deshpande found, the median woman was putting in a little under 5 hours of housework in a day, and the median man a little under 90 minutes a day, at the end of last year.

According to the CMIE database, the median woman was putting in a little under 5 hours of housework in a day, and the median man a little under 90 minutes a day, at the end of last year.
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According to the CMIE database, the median woman was putting in a little under 5 hours of housework in a day, and the median man a little under 90 minutes a day, at the end of last year.

By April this year, women were still doing the lion’s share. But as households were forced to fold inwards, some hard divisions got blurred. By April, both men and women were spending more time on housework, Deshpande found, but the average gap between men and women decreased by 1 hour. The narrowing of the gap was driven in large part by recently unemployed men contributing more to housework, Deshpande found. Desai and Kaur had similar findings—a significant increase in men taking on shared housework.

Many men and women testify to this change. Ajit Narasimhan, 38, is the chief marketing officer at Sundaram Mutual in Chennai. When his daughter was born in 2014, Narasimhan took the standard one-week paternity leave. Despite seeing himself as a hands-on dad, he acknowledges that with a full-time office job and a wife who works from home, parenting his daughter was largely about the night-time routine and weekends. But when his son was born in February this year, the lockdown forced Narasimhan into working from home within a month of his birth. “Spending these first four-five months with him, and being part of this routine, has been incredible," says Narasimhan, who cannot imagine going back to a life where he would only see the children late each evening.

On a recent school Zoom call, his daughter’s class was asked if their fathers cooked. “When she didn’t put her hand up, I asked her why and she said—well you don’t know how to cook! I had never been very excited to cook before, but now I am the chicken biryani expert," he says.

Blessy Vijayan, 40, is a nanny and housekeeper in Mumbai; her husband works with the same employer as a driver. Both retained their jobs at half pay, with the understanding that they would resume work after the monsoon. Amid the upheaval, her in-laws returned to Kerala and she was left without a second pair of hands to help with the housework. For the first time in their marriage, she says, her husband stepped up.

But the uncertainty that has characterized the last few months holds true here too; we don’t know how we might behave when we no longer have to behave this way.

Great upheavals can produce tectonic shifts in societies. World War II recast the roles of women in the workplace and as a result, out of necessity, of men at home. It’s hard to say right now, says Deshpande, if these are going to be lasting changes. The fact that male unemployment drove the increase in male participation in housework, for instance, could point to these being “war-time measures" rather than “peace-time measures".

Many other factors that directly affect the division of unpaid housework and care-work are as yet unclear—when (if?) the economy restarts, how will the sectors that women are clustered in do? How much will the work-from-home revolution stick? When will schools reopen?

For some, like Narasimhan, the lockdown has provided a new way of thinking about work and life, and even when he is able to, he no longer wants to go back to the “old normal". But for many women, the resumption of paid (usually female) household workers after lockdown restrictions are lifted could mark the end of male involvement in housework.

Yogita Hastak Menon, 37, is a school counsellor in Bengaluru; till recently, her husband worked in hospitality. The lockdown coincided with him changing career tracks to photography and spending more time with the children at home, Hastak Menon says. But as Bengaluru’s lockdown lifted, her husband resumed work outside the home and a paid house cleaner began work. For many others, like Raju, the stress of the last few months has taken such a toll that their husbands returning to office jobs would be more than welcome for everyone’s peace of mind. In Vijayan’s case, the newly equitable relationship has a clear expiry date: “When all of this is over and my in-laws return, it will be back to life as it was. If they see me asking him to chop onions, we will both never hear the last of it," she says.

Not everyone is looking for a complete recast of gender roles or even of their own agreed-upon roles. But the opportunity to re-examine the status quo that the pandemic forced upon Indian households could have lit a spark. “He has started making omelettes and dosas for the first time—kutty (small) dosas," Sugumari says, laughing, of her husband. “After all that’s all we want, no? A little adjustment," she says. “Then we can manage."

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based data journalist.

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