So what does this have to do with gender equality at the workplace?
There is hope that in the new WFH work models for all, women will no longer need to take on the lion’s share of unpaid care (children, elders) or domestic work (cleaning, washing and cooking).
Here are a few uncomfortable statistics which throw light on how deep and pervasive the burden of unpaid work is for women across the globe. The ILO, in 2018 shared that globally, women bear the brunt of unpaid care work and perform 76.2 % per cent of total hours of such work, three times as much as men. In Asia Pacific, this rises to 80 per cent. The India Inequality Report 2020 by Oxfam India revealed that Indian women spend 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes daily in rural areas on unpaid care work. Indian men correspondingly spend only 29 minutes (urban) and 32 minutes (rural) on the same.
Fractured Career Trajectories
It is well-known and documented that the price of the unpaid care work has meant that capable women have either not reached, or stayed for long in leadership positions. They have chosen a work-life balance by either opting for (unmatched to capability) part-time jobs or dropped out of the workforce altogether.
Women have also been expected to ‘drop their careers at a hat’ as ‘trailing spouses’ - those who move location to support work transfers of their breadwinning husbands.
Even well-intentioned corporates who take steps towards gender diversity, have had trouble retaining women or promoting more than a miniscule to senior ranks. This is crisply investigated in a recent Harvard Business Review article titled ‘What’s Really Holding Women Back?’ The article shows how women’s persistent underrepresentation in leadership roles is due to their compliance with the cultural dictate that they become the primary family caregiver.
This is not to deny that there have been policy changes at global and national levels poised to create a fairer environment for working women. However, the progress of Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (Achieve Gender Equality And Empower All Women And Girls) in 2019 shows that women represented 39 per cent of world employment and only 27 per cent of managerial positions were occupied by women in 2018.
So, what’s new?
A change in working couple dynamics has been witnessed globally during the Covid19 lockdown, where remote working ‘for all’ has been a successful trial run on a big scale. What does this mean: women will no more be doing all the care work alone.
Men, erstwhile saved from domestic work managed by women with paid staff, have been sensitised to its burden and have enlisted their help. Excruciating hours saved on commute and collaboration technologies have helped even those women who manage unpaid care work alone to meet work targets. Remote working opportunities also promise a window of continuity for the ‘trailing spouses.’
Is remote work here to stay?
Post Covid-19, there are good indications of permanent change taking place across many industries. The misconception that people cannot, or will not perform when working remotely has been put to rest. The saving of huge office rentals have encouraged many companies to consider giving up permanent office spaces altogether, and invest in people instead.
The IT industry in particular is seeking changes in laws as WFH is set to become the norm. As stated by a NASSCOM official, “Once work-from-home is enabled at a large scale, people may want to work for only a certain number of hours a day, as opposed to the 8 hour norm. This could benefit women, university students and handicapped greatly."
Women have been known to be great listeners, non-territorial and evolutionarily superior at multitasking, and could make effective leaders if given the opportunity. Others things remaining equal, I believe that the remote economy is this opportunity, and women will finally have a chance to showcase their capabilities without fractured career trajectories.
Suggestions for women professionals to ensure WFH roles are viewed at par with full-time roles (and how to remain in the reckoning for leadership roles)
1) Invest in professional infrastructure, stay connected: This is possible with a well-functioning mobile, laptop, high speed net connection, and power backup. Remote workers must update themselves with the latest communication software and keep gadgets running smoothly since you will be on your own now.
2) Plan work hours, stick to expected timings: Inform friends and family in advance about work slots which cannot be disturbed. Sync up with the team to maximise productivity during this band. Avoid the gravitational pull of the television, social media, personal chats or even domestic chores during work hours.
3) Maintain a neat workstation, and stay well-groomed during work hours: This is mandatory to ensure a professional presence in video meetings, which will be a significant part of a remote work.
4) Suggest and schedule weekly meetings: Keep in touch with the team even if your role doesn’t require too much coordination with others; update your team head with progress reports. This shows commitment to the organisation’s goals as well as one’s career.
5) Stay fit: Adopt a disciplined exercise routine to remain fit from home. Avoid the temptation to work long hours without breaks, or jump from the desk to the couch. Remember: an aspiring leader has to set an example even through her fitness levels.
Steps that corporates could take to make gender diversity a reality in their leadership teams
1) Empower through technology, with a human touch- Organisations should upskill remote teams with the latest collaboration technologies to eliminate the need for full-time presence at the office. They must also create team engagement activities, with periodic in-person meetings to eliminate loneliness commonly experienced by remote workers.
2) Track work outcomes, not time input: Leadership teams should be encouraged to stop micro-managing and obsessing over a fixed time input. They should instead empower teams to take responsibility for work outcomes and create an open-door policy at all levels. For instance, Nina Lekhi, the founder and CEO of Baggit shares that the company has now redesigned its manufacturing set-up to encourage work-from-home and ensure a higher participation of women.
3) Commit to work-life balance. It is tempting assume that the socially isolated employee is always available and call them pre or post work hours. However, respecting personal and professional boundaries of WFH employees is healthy for both, the employee and the employer. Many start-ups have allowed employees to select their preferred work hours, as long as they are available for planned team collaboration hours.
4) Open up roles that were earlier not available for women: All roles should be carefully reconsidered by the human resource team for remote work. Steps should be taken to bring work-from-home profiles at par with full-time profiles in terms of promotions and compensation. This will help close the gap.
The road to gender parity and inclusiveness in the corporate world
Increasing women's representation at the workplace has been proven to increase profits, innovation and goodwill. However for real change to happen, corporates have to go beyond just appointing women to company boards as mandated by law. Encouraging remote-working roles, supplementing them with mentorship and diversity training programs and publishing of annual diversity reports are good steps in this direction.
The silver lining of this pandemic is that we have never been closer to workplace gender equality. It is now up to organisations to grab this chance to walk the talk, and take affirmative action that will finally allow women “to have it all."
(Suman Chhabria Addepalli is a published author, director at ed-tech startup GlobalGyan, and a mom of two. The views expressed in the article are her own)