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The pandemic has turned Shareshtha Sachdeva’s life “upside down". The single mother, 40, was among the millions who lost their jobs last year. “I was asked to leave after nine years of working. Then financials came haunting like a nightmare. But I had to hold the front. The hardest was to keep a brave face in front of my kid while all I wanted to do was curl up and cry."

The covid-19 crisis has disproportionately affected women globally, unsurprising in a world that has never been gender-fair. A July McKinsey & Co. report says women are more vulnerable to covid-19-related economic effects because of existing gender inequalities. Globally, the report estimates, female job loss rates due to covid-19 are 1.8 times higher than those encountered by male counterparts. “One reason for this greater effect on women is the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women," it states.

In its recent “Opportunity Index 2021" report, LinkedIn found that 89% women believe covid-19 affected them. “Yes, covid-19 has undoubtedly widened the gender gaps at work, given its drastic impact on our economy," says Ruchee Anand, director (talent and learning solutions), LinkedIn (India). She adds the gap is wider in India than the rest of the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, with 63% of women and 69% of working mothers in India claiming they have faced discrimination due to their household responsibilities. Almost 40% of women in APAC have dealt with this issue. “Despite having more flexibility in these times of social distancing, more women are bearing the brunt of playing a ‘balance act’ between work and family care," says Anand.

Chennai’s Seetha Gopalakrishnan, 34, who works with a biodiversity conservation organization, agrees. “Things are much better now, but it was initially difficult despite having in-laws around to help me out," says Gopalakrishnan. Balancing work and childcare, however, was challenging. “People don’t understand that work from home means just that and not just a way to seem serious while skipping work," adds the Gopalakrishnan, mother of a three-year-old. “When you are at home, the automatic assumption is that you can manage the baby, keep her engaged, feed her, basically all the routine things that you would do."

Money matters

Ishrat Parveen, 38, who has run a beauty parlour in Noida, took years to set up her own business. “I come from a poor family, so all my life has been a struggle. I have fought for everything that I have," she says. Forced to keep her parlour shut for months because of the virus, she struggled to keep up with rent, her children’s school fees and necessities. Credit and handouts from her clients got her through those difficult months, she says. Though her parlour is now open again, she’s struggling with making enough to pay back the debt she incurred when it was closed.

A September UN Women’s report, “Insights to Action", predicts gender poverty gaps will weaken owing to the crisis. “Women are losing their livelihood faster because they are more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors," states the report, adding that communities already reeling from institutionalised poverty and other discrimination are particularly at risk. For instance, in India, one of the worst-affected group were domestic workers, a highly feminised, often-invisible workforce already subject to frequent exploitation.

When the country went into lockdown, Anjala, a domestic worker who uses only one name, was asked to stop coming for work by all her three employers. Her husband, who drives a tempo truck, also stopped getting transportation gigs. “There was no work for three months," she says. “It was very hard."

Thankfully, one of her employers continued to deposit her salary. That sum of money and free ration packages helped her tide through those months, recalls Anjala, who resumed working once lockdown was lifted. Her husband, however, still hasn’t got much work.

A flexible workplace

Rita Christopher, 55, who worked as an alumni coordinator in a Chennai-based educational institution, struggled to commute to her workplace once the lockdown was lifted. “I normally go to work by train," says Christopher, who lived over 25km away. Back then, trains were not plying, and she did not have a personal vehicle at her disposal, so she asked her manager if working from home was an option. Her request was rejected. “He sent me a termination notice in June citing performance reasons," Christopher says. “I was shocked; my immediate boss had given me a good rating and was always happy with my work."

To level the playing field for women at work, says LinkedIn’s Anand, there is an immediate need to change mindsets and implement more substantial diversity and inclusion practices. Offering more flexible schedules could increase female participation at the workplace and help stopper the gender gap, one that covid-19 has undoubtedly widened.

Agna Fernandez, associate professor (human resources) at the Loyola Institute of Business Education, adds that having flexibility in work policy can help draw and retain female talent. “One woman’s problem is not the same as the other; equality can be brought in through differentiation," says Fernandez.

Some organizations are recognising this. Bengaluru-based Dhanya Rajeswaran, the regional director (HR) of a leading technology platform company, says covid-19 has brought in a fundamental shift in the way organizations function. Covid-19 has created adversities for women, she says, but it has also opened new doors. “Digital is creating an equal workplace," she says, adding that this new space had the potential to cut through the perceived boundaries of the past. It also could help create an opportunity for women, who’ve traditionally struggled because of the push and pull of home, she believes. “We will never go back to the old way of working. Role-based work from home is here to stay."

Forging her own path

Mumbai’s Tasneem Pocketwala decided to go freelance in March 2020. Then the pandemic hit. “It has been a struggle," says the 28-year-old. “There has been a lot more rejection, a lot more silences in the inbox." Though she admits that she is aware the first year of freelancing is always difficult, she does think covid-19 has made things worse. “I don’t know how much of it is because I am not doing enough or because the situation itself is bad," she says. “If it had been some other time, I think I may have got the hang of it."

By most accounts, women trying to strike it out independently were hit badly by the pandemic. A September Mint report found that one in three women-led enterprises was temporarily or permanently closed. However, while the immediate impact was negative, the long-term impact may not be necessarily so. For instance, many women used the downtime to re-evaluate the way they worked.

Charmaine Kenita, a Bengaluru-based writer and entrepreneur, admits that she struggled to find work during the initial phase of the pandemic. The inactivity was challenging, says Kenita. “I have not stopped working in the last 12 years." However, she found new ways to keep herself occupied “I have kept busy with upskilling; I took 20 courses during the lockdown," she says, adding that all this pushed up her overall urge to do more. Work started trickling back in by September, she says, adding that it is now “phenomenal."

Covid-19 appears to have also created some new first-time female entrepreneurs. Sachdeva is one of them. She had always been passionate about cooking and had even once owned a weekend catering service. When she lost her job last year, she decided to restart it: both to make ends meet and to keep herself busy. “It picked up quite quickly, to be honest. On a good day, I would have over 25 orders; it kept me sane," she says.

She has now cut back on the cooking and begun consulting with a couple of companies to pay her bills. But the experience has changed the shape of her dreams. “When I envision my future, I surely do see a café in the making, run on ‘menu of the day’ business, with lots of music and books."

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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