Bindu (name changed) is single, lives with her family in South Delhi, and is an employee of a Delhi based start-up. During this lockdown, she is working from home. She shared, “Working from home is hard for me. I have to divide my time between household chores and office work. There is a lot of expectation to support the family when there is no domestic help available. Making time for these chores is difficult. If this is the case with me, I am wondering how single mothers and working mothers are managing.”
Bindu is one of the woman professionals I interviewed to understand how the lockdown period is working for women.
After the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, many female employees decked social media walls with plans for reconnecting with old friends, rekindling hobbies, and in the team calls, they shared experiences of innovative cooking with minimum groceries and vegetables, extra quality time with kids and the fun of connecting through Skype/Zoom from home.
The initial week was relatively a smooth sail. In the subsequent weeks, women were overworked, stressed, and were logging in four hours more than before. Peak mail hours crept up an hour early; days were packed with back to back virtual meetings and telephone calls; working hours subsumed the lunch and tea breaks, and global calls extended till late evenings and early mornings.
Before the lockdown, work from home was a perk for office goers in India. Many women professionals thought ‘work from home’ will give them a flexible working environment. Unpaid care work has been the women’s responsibility but with the enforcement of physical distancing, caretakers are no longer available, and ‘working from home’ doubled the burden combining household chores and office work.
Gendered identities as daughters, daughters-in-law, wives, and mothers are centred on their role as caretakers therefore, women spend more time on unpaid care work than men. Negative gender norms on ‘undervaluing women’s labour irrespective of her employment status, bounced back during the lockdown.
“My mother-in-law felt that it was disrespectful for me to continue with my office work when the whole family is having free time together. I should have served delicacies for the family when the office has given me the luxury to work from home,” says Leena, a banking professional. The gendered narrative of breadwinning male and caregiving female continues to prevail in our societies. Moreover, society judges women on their household work performance even if they are the earning members.
Maternal care is also seen as the sole responsibility of mothers. Women working from home have to now manage the children amid their team calls and reporting. Preetha, a school teacher from Kerala shared that during my e-learning classes, I have to monitor my children also. “I cannot focus on my professional responsibilities when children are also at home. I have to balance both,” she added. Working mothers also squeezed time from office hours to handhold small children on their virtual learning sessions. Society’s bolstering of women’s inherent capacity of ‘child care’ put the double burden on her during this lockdown period.
Sheela, a finance professional from Bangalore shared, that after a week of lock-down she was verbally and emotionally abused by her in-laws and husband for prioritizing office work over household chores. “It ended in heated debates and I was beaten up. I ran out and sought help from my neighbours. Later my relatives got in touch with my in-laws and I moved to my uncle’s place which was in the next lane. Now I feel better.”
For April, 315 domestic violence complaints were registered in the National Commission for Women portal. The registered cases only reflect the tip of the iceberg, as a substantial number of cases are unreported. From those reported, the reasons for domestic abuse are yet to be explored.
Though offices experimented with reducing core working hours, it did not help women professionals. Sindhu, a PR officer based out of Chennai, shared that the workload has increased with continuous calls and there are regular checks by the supervisors. “Some managers are sensitive to the challenges, but some just ignore them.”
Her official performance also gets affected if she cannot meet her targets, especially when she has to compete with the male team members. For those residing in tiny apartments, the living room/bedroom became office spaces. With both partners working from home, women have to adjust to the unfit co-working space. The virtual meetings served an official purpose, many female team members held back their responses and preferred muting to avoid the cacophony from their chaotic working space.
Latika, a development sector professional based out of Delhi, remarks, “NGOs are in pressure to rework the previous intervention strategies to more field-based relief work. We are expecting a huge cost cut and there is a pressure of performance as it is also time for annual appraisals.” The feeling of insecurity has fuelled an emotional pressure on working women. Many offices offered no personal space to connect, share struggles, weave new thoughts, and feel energized.
During the lockdown period, working women witnessed a shoring up of the negative norms that undervalued them in the domestic spaces. Workspaces also invisibilized the domestic challenges of female employees. Women are going through domestic violence and have limited access to support services. The lockdown left many of them with a loss of autonomy, shrinking personal space, professionalism, besides the trauma of domestic violence. There is an urgency to have a collective reflection on the gendered dimension of lockdown on the lives of women professionals.