I am learning to cook. I make breakfast everyday. I do the dishes. I get the children ready in the morning before I sit in front of my laptop.
No, these are not women describing their daily routine. These are statements made by men during the lockdown period.
My husband, who has not cooked a single meal in the last twenty-five years, stepped into the kitchen and produced an authentic traditional lunch- with help and some directions. A friend’s son took on the duty of cleaning the toilets. I see an uncle in the neighborhood taking in the clothes from the balcony.
While these statements and actions are probably limited to a small group of middle -class folks in larger cities and towns, I do wonder if this phenomenon is a harbinger of greater gender equality in the future.
Women across the world and in India have the lioness’s share of domestic work. As per OECD data, women in India do 352 minutes of unpaid domestic work daily compared to 52 minutes for men. This includes the work of care giving to children and elders and domestic work. The total is about 16 billion hours a day of unpaid work that is difficult and thankless. The women’s labor force participation in India is one of the lowest in the world at 27 percent. According to an OXFAM study, if women participated in the workforce at the same rate as men, we could increase the GDP by 43 percent.
In the absence of helpers, many people have discovered that domestic work and child care has value. Men have discovered that this work it is necessary to keep the household running. Both have discovered that chores need not be gendered- cooking and washing are not feminine just as changing the light bulbs and starting the car are not masculine jobs. Anyone can do any type of work.
If this ability to share the household tasks continues past the lockdown, it will help women in carrying the domestic load. The imputed value of such work should increase and men can no longer claim incompetence or inexperience as a factor in refusing their share of work. It is important that women capitalize on this experience to lay down healthy boundaries and share the responsibility of domestic tasks.
One of the real consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak is loss of jobs and salary cuts across the board. This may require women to find jobs opportunities to supplement the family income. A friend mentioned that her husband, a recruitment consultant, would be seeing a significant drop in earnings in the coming year while the demand for her online tuition classes are booming. Something that she once did as a temporary time-pass has become a significant source of income for the family. Another client of mine mentioned that her in-laws are now thankful for her salaried job in a private company since there has been zero revenue from the family business for the last two months.
Working from home reduces sexual harassment at the workplace and during the travel to work allowing for safer working conditions.
The post COVID era will see a change in the earning capacities of the men, who have the traditional provider role. Just as women entered the workforce in droves due to the World Wars, the war on coronavirus will also create some changes in the job market. Many women are looking to become active partners in their husband’s business ventures to offset manpower costs. There are still many men and families who frown upon the women stepping out to work but economic necessity makes everyone adapt to survive.
Work from home has been the norm during these lockdown days. Many organizations are now seeing Work from home as a viable option on a long term basis. TCS has announced that 75 percent of its employees will work from home till 2025. Other companies in the service industry are following this norm as a way of reducing overheads and employee costs. This opens up possibilities for women for many reasons. Women can avoid long commutes which is a deterrent for many to join the workforce. It is a blessing for mothers who can be physically present at home to supervise childcare. Working from home reduces sexual harassment at the workplace and during the travel to work allowing for safer working conditions. The downside will be there for many women who see working outside home as an escape from the confines of the four walls of the home. It will require greater negotiation with those at home so that sitting in front of a laptop is seen as legitimate work that does not allow for disturbances and disruptions. Women will have to give up the temptation to multitask and the tendency for perfectionism in the domestic context so that they can benefit from this opportunity.
There is a very real possibility of a change in mindsets and better gender equality in the post COVID era. The established norms of patriarchy will take more time to shift but some firm steps can be taken in that direction. It is up to both men and women to adapt, change and not squander this chance for a more just and equitable world.
Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are the author’s own.