Explained: Why The COVID-19 Pandemic Forced More Women Out of Jobs
Sweta was a manager at a well-known IT company in Hyderabad till September 2020. The pandemic forced her to quit so she could take care of her toddler. She is worried that she may not get hired even after the pandemic passes, the pleas for finding hospital beds end and the economy recovers.
Days after offices shut down and homes turned into workplaces, Shweta was exhausted. "With no domestic help, added household chores and a toddler, the work pressure got intense. By September, I was just tired and felt as if my brain was simply not able to take it." When she tried explaining to her bosses, they immediately compared her to her male peers who spent more hours glued to their laptops and hence, assumed to be more productive. "How do you tell your boss that your male peer doesn't cook, clean, sit through virtual school and feed the child?"
Shweta finally quit her 9-6 job and is now working on part-time gigs from home, while taking care of her toddler. "It does get frustrating on some days where you doubt your own decision," Sweta said, adding that it's only a "temporary feeling".
Job Status for Women: What The Numbers Say?
Before the pandemic hit, India's labour force participation rate (LFPR) was 50.2% according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Between May and August 2020, the LFPR came down to 40.2%, out of which labour participation rates for females was 9.3% compared to 67.4% for males. While the numbers picked up by the end of 2020, female labour force participation declined by 14% compared to 1% decline for males.
"We have to understand that employment allocation between men and women is segregated and can be profiled. Let us categorise the three primary sectors which have been hit by this pandemic in most extreme sense- 1. Labor sector; 2. Care economy sector or the sector where close proximity roles are necessary; 3. Mobility sector - and out of these three, two are primarily comprised of women. So we do not really have to dig deep or look at graphs, this is obvious," said Pallavi Pareek, CEO and founder of Ungender, a legal resource platform for women with an aim of creating gender-sensitive, equal workplaces.
"Companies focusing on survival have gone for cost-cutting and found a way to make their teams leaner. When such decisions are taken, companies will opt for more reliable, stronger, and key players in their teams. Women anyway are not considered as key players and strong resources. Yes, men did lose jobs, but not as many as women," said Pareek.
The numbers may not be needed to prove women lost more jobs, but the numbers are hard to ignore.
LinkedIn's Opportunity Index 2021 report published in March revealed critical gender gaps and opportunity barriers faced by Indian women and mothers at the workplace. The report noted that 71% of women and 77% of mothers in India said managing family responsibilities often come in their way of career development. In fact, about two-thirds of women (63%) and mothers (69%) in India said they have faced discrimination at work because of family responsibilities. Even though 66% of people in India feel that gender equality has improved compared to their parents' age, India's working women still contend the strongest gender bias across Asia Pacific countries, noted the report.
LinkedIn had identified 99 jobs that are consistently growing in demand across 20 economies and looked at female representation across those roles. Most women who were interviewed for the report said lack of time was the biggest barrier they faced in their careers.
When asked about their reasons for being unhappy with opportunities to advance in their careers, 1 in 5 (22%) women said their companies exhibit a 'favourable bias' towards men at work. "Gender inequality at work and added domestic responsibilities amid the pandemic have collectively made women's jobs more vulnerable at this time," said Ruchee Anand, Director, Talent and Learning Solutions, India at LinkedIn.
Why Did More Women Lose Jobs?
"Economic forces arise because of sociological forces, you can't separate them," said economist Mitali Nikore. The economist explained that the burden of unpaid work increased on women during the pandemic even if families were able to afford help. "You have to sit with your child and naturally your productivity decreases. You are constantly compelled to choose between life and work," she said. "For a large number of women the primary role of caregiving trumped their professional work- affecting their performance," she added.
The reason why more women had to leave jobs, Nikore pointed out, is because a woman's income is still considered to be supplementary if the husband or the father or the brother earns. "It is because of the gender wage gap that the opportunity cost for the woman to give up the job is lower. It's actually not a choice, it may be a rational decision. She is compelled by sociological and economic factors," she said.
Vaidehi, who worked at an international media company in Mumbai, was to return back from her pre-approved leave that she had taken for her wedding, in June 2020. She was told that she has two options: Either to stay on the roll with no pay or quit. Vaidehi had worked at the company for 10 years before that.
In January 2020, she was granted leave for her wedding which was set to be in April 2020. All the paperwork was done. Then the pandemic hit. Vaidehi cancelled her wedding. She continued with her pre-approved leave. When she reached out to HR days before her joining date, she was told that there was no job for her and that she has to wait for a new opening. "I was shocked and depressed. How did my job go away while I was on wedding leave? Nothing made sense," Vaidehi said, recollecting her nightmarish experience. In January this year, she was finally told that nothing is opening up. She quit and since then she has been on a job hunt.
"I guess they just don't want a woman who went off to be married and who will now probably come back married and then baby... Best we chuck her out, so what if she grew with us and was part of us for 10 years. We'll use the pandemic and chuck her out while on wedding leave," she said.
The remote work scenario could have done wonders for women's entry or continuity in the workforce. However, the realities were quite the contrary.
"We have to first assess what is it that we are looking for when we say 'women in workforce'. Jobs are limited, the gig economy is growing, and career is changing its definition. So corporate roles available for women are getting lesser in number. We are dealing with the mindset which has trouble considering women as a serious career resource when she was required to come to an office and work in the physical environment. For a woman to be working from home, when they cannot monitor her, this is going to be more of a challenge. And we see and hear this challenge when companies express their concerns about hiring for key positions or assessing appraisals and promotions between different genders," Pareek said.
'Stay-At-Home Mom' Tag: What it Means?
Sweta, who had to give up her cushiony job at an IT company to take care of her toddler said, "If not for the pandemic, perhaps, I would have moved jobs, got a promotion or a CTC jump..."
More than 2.5 million women left the workforce during the pandemic, many voluntarily, due to a sudden lack of childcare or to manage virtual learning for their children. In view of this, recently, LinkedIn, the global professional network introduced new job titles including "stay-at-home mom," "stay-at-home dad" and "stay-at-home parent," to allow full-time parents and caretakers to more accurately display these jobs on their profiles. LinkedIn's new feature allows users to use one of these new stay-at-home job descriptions and set the employment type field to "self-employed", where one doesn't need to specify a company or employer.
Pareek said LinkedIn's move is an important one as it's a 'dignified and unified declaration' that will answer the dreaded question that women are asked at job interviews irrespective of everyone knowing the answer to it: Explain the gap in your resume.
LinkedIn also has plans to add a new field specifically for employment gap types to the profile - like "parental leave," "family care," or "sabbatical", so that people can address any gaps in their career journey.
What Can Companies Do To Get Back Women?
Back in February, Fiza posted a Twitter thread, asking for help to find a job. "My name is Fiza. I'm a visually impaired Muslim located in Pune. I moved to Pune 1.5 yrs ago looking for a job to support myself through my studies (currently enrolled in SPPU, BA, English). I've been facing ableism and Islamophobia throughout my time here."
"I desperately need a job or I might have to leave the city and perhaps give up on my education," she wrote.
She found a job through social media but had to quit soon after facing Islamophobic attacks, again. Fiza is still looking for a 'safe workplace'.
A paper written by researchers at the Azim Premji University based on CMIE-CPHS data found that not only were women seven times more likely to lose jobs during the pandemic but women were 11 times more likely to not return to work subsequently.
LinkedIn's Opportunity Index 2021 report noted that 85% of women have missed out on a raise, promotion or other work offers because of their gender. There was also a marked decline of women being hired into leadership roles since the pandemic, leading to a reversal of 1 to 2 years of progress across multiple industries.
"As COVID-19 continues to widen these gaps, the report suggests that it is the need of the hour for organisations to reimagine their diversity practices and offer greater flexibility to caregivers, in order to increase female participation in the workforce. Reduced and flexible schedules, more sabbaticals, and new opportunities to upskill and learn are critical offerings that can help organizations attract, hire, and retain more female talent," said Ruchee Anand from LinkedIn.
The report also found out that while job security is important to women, what is critical is finding an employer who treats them as equal.
In February, Procter & Gamble (P&G) India, an FMCG company, introduced an inclusive parental leave policy called 'share the care' which enables all parents to avail the leave irrespective of their gender or marital status. "This is the kind of policies we need, policies that are gender-neutral," said economist Mitali Nikore.
"With the growing conversation on the impact of COVID-19 on women workforce, it is also imperative that leaders discuss this in boardrooms as well as open forums. There is a social and economic push to have these conversations and it is happening," Pareek said.
"We will be seeing women as part of the workforce, but not in the corporate world. Back-end roles, gig assignments, consultants, and the labor segment will see this rise, but corporates will see more absence of women," she added.