Estimated read time : 11 minutes
Insights from our panel discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on women
The team at That Parent Thing came across an interesting report examining the impact of the novel Coronavirus on the US economy by researchers at Northwestern University. It made the stark observation that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a disproportionately negative effect on women and their employment opportunities.
The main argument that the researchers made was that in the current downturn the sectors that are going to be most affected — for example, the restaurants, or the travel sector — have fairly high women employment. Additionally, a big problem for most people who live with children is the extra child care needs — everybody with young kids has to provide all of the child care all of a sudden.
Come to think of it, things are not any different in India. With women constituting 67% of our total health care workers, taking on the larger chunk of the household burden (women in India spend roughly 10 times the time spent by men on unpaid care work), and enabling learning for the 300mn children across the country who are out of school, they are impacted significantly. The industries that employ women in India too are affected, hence placing a big question mark on their financial equity. With other issues like domestic violence and mental health resurfacing during the lockdown, it’s clear that gender equality gains made in the past decades are at the risk of rolling back.
We figured that while the rest of the world has the luxury of romanticizing the lockdown, parents – especially mothers, unfortunately, don’t. Pandemics affect men and women differently and this drove us to pull together those championing the most diverse perspectives around the impact of COVID-19 on women. What came out of the panel gave ample reason for concern and action – from individuals, workplaces, and Governments.
Here’s a summary of the key insights –
The unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between women and men is to become starker in view of the current crisis. Worldwide more than 1.5 billion children are out of school right now and the needs of families at this time is unique. Apart from managing work and the household, women are also left to take care of their children full time (and educate, if possible) and tend to the heightened care needed for the elderly.
Priya Krishnan, who founded KLAY with the intent of bringing women back to work post-maternity made a pertinent point around the increasing societal expectation of women to be the primary caregivers in this context. The issues faced by women 10 years ago with entering the workforce may recur considering the given circumstances. Transitioning back to the workplace would mean a blended model of working at home and working from office and organizations and Governments would need to solve for the care conundrum in this peculiar situation.
While investing in WFH and collaborating tools is the easier part, there is a huge demand for establishing a flexible culture to survive in the ‘new normal’. Workplaces have no choice but to evolve and given the mounting burden of responsibilities at home for both parents, workplaces will need to understand the diverse needs of their workforce and reinvent how they function altogether.
Padmaja Alaganandan, Chief People Officer at PwC India spoke about how the pandemic is a great opportunity for employees. The workplace footprint is bound to evolve and the impediments faced earlier with traditional offices including commute, safety, or being available at home at a certain time. The focus is expected to shift on outcomes and effectiveness of the job and hence is a win for the organization as well.
Sajit T C, CHRO, BIAL, shed light on the need for organizations to address unique challenges faced by women. Going by an anecdote from within BIAL, a counselling hotline established to address mental health queries from employees received the majority of calls from women. This clearly indicates the need for organizations to dig deeper into the specific issues that women encounter and support these needs in whatever way possible.
We started our quest for answers with this – women are overrepresented in the sectors and jobs which are hardest hit by COVID-19 – manufacturing, textile and garments, care services, hospitality and tourism. It has been predicted by experts that more women will lose jobs in the US. Several questions are unanswered in India: is it going to be any different in India?
Mitali Mukherjee, senior financial journalist broadened its scope by highlighting work-from-home on one end and the larger issue of employment on the other. While on a national level the unemployment rate is at 26%, it is higher in states like Jharkhand where it stands at a staggering 47%. Additionally, globally as well, 70% of our workforce is from the informal economy who have just been cut off without representation, a minimal income, or even job security. She also echoed views expressed by Priya regarding societal expectations of women as the primary caregivers. With women staying back at home, there seems to be an underlined notion that the household can cut back on domestic staff, daycare facilities, etc.
With work-from-home set to become a norm for a large section of the workforce, there is a huge opportunity for more women to make a professional comeback. Data show that the number of work-from-home jobs posted on JobsForHer has increased by about 30% in the last month compared with the same period a year ago. Can this be a sustainable path for the increase of women in the workforce?
There are reports of increased gender-based violence in India and many women are being forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers at the same time that services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible. Even without overt ‘physical violence’ – there is an existing physical and mental strain on women in the current scenario.
Rashi Vidyasagar, Director of Strategy, The Alternative, shed light on the already existing mental health issues persisting in millennials. 76% of millennial caregivers (the generation that consists of 50% of the workforce) reported high-stress levels before the pandemic, high chances that this has intensified during the lockdown. In addition, women/mothers specifically seem to be playing multiple roles of teacher, cook, housekeeper, etc. and the additional burden of making tea several times a day, for example, is disrupting her physical and mental well-being. The lines between work and life are extremely unclear, more so for the women and this is their biggest challenge.
COVID-19 has been touted as the great equalizer – but maybe not all the way.
Pandemics have a tendency to either accelerate the trends already in motion or reverse them. It is critical to acknowledge the ways in which COVID-19 is impacting women differently and take steps to actively remove the impediments challenging gender diversity in workplaces and the larger society.
Pooja is today an angel investor and a mentor to many startups, business leaders and educators. Pooja Goyal is a serial entrepreneur with over 21 years of general management and product marketing experience. She is the founder of Intellitots Learning (acquired by Founding Years) which is known for its ground-breaking work in the field of early childhood education and care.
Sajit is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Strategy Group Member at the Bangalore International Airport Ltd. He has over 25 years of experience in human resources and organizational development. He is an ICF Certified Coach and a CII EXIM Business Excellence Model Ambassador.
Mitali Mukherjee is a financial journalist and a social entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience in the television and journalism industry. As an entrepreneur, she has co-founded MoneyMile and samarthan.in. Mitali has been committed to making a difference in childrens’ education, her key focus being children with learning disabilities.
Neha Bagaria is a social entrepreneur and is proficient in HR and marketing strategy. With 17 years of experience in the industry, Neha is now the Founder and CEO of JobsForHer, a company that is dedicated to reversing the female brain drain, helping women from various stages of life attain their professional journey and accelerate their careers.
Rashi is the Director, Communications and Strategy of the Alternative Story, an organisation with expert counselling therapists providing affordable and accessible counselling services. Rashi Vidyasagar is a social professional with extensive experience in mental health and violence against women. She has over 15 years of experience, working for companies like Humsafar Trust, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, White Swan Foundation and Time to Change.
Padmaja is the Chief People Officer of PwC India. She has over 25 years of consulting experience across business and human capital advisory across diverse industries. Before joining PwC in 2011, Padmaja has worked in leadership roles in organisations such as Mercer Consulting and A.F. Ferguson. She has also been a member of CII’s National HR Committee, as well as its Committee on Skill Development.
Priya is the founder of KLAY – India’s largest chain of non-franchised Preschools and Daycare centres. Started with the intent of enabling women to get back to work post-childbirth, KLAY today has established over 150+ centres with 450+ corporate partnerships and built a community of 3,000+ employees and 30,000+ parents across India. She is an MBA graduate from London Business School and has worked in leadership positions in various organisations such as MphasiS UK, EDS, etc. She is a work-life integration evangelist and two-time winner of ET Startup Awards.