Work From or Work For Home? The Dual Burden on Women During the Pandemic

In January 2020, the first case of coronavirus was reported in India. Soon, the government placed numerous restrictions on all economic and non-economic activities across the country to contain the spread of the virus. As a result, the economy was hit hard while we tried to adjust to the new normal of ‘working from home’.

Around that time, a lot of families abstained from availing domestic help services. However, because of this, the burden of unpaid work fell disproportionately on the women of the family – even if they were employed in formal or informal sectors.

Unpaid work at home includes, but is not limited to, cleaning the house, washing clothes and utensils, cooking, and child care. Such tasks are often physically tiring, time-consuming, and leave no personal time for the one doing them. In general, it’s a job mostly carried out by women.

In cases where women are not employed in a paid job, the number of hours they put in doing unpaid work at home is almost equal to the number of hours put in by a man doing a paid job. In terms of unpaid work also, women spend ten times the number of hours put in by men doing the unpaid work. This disparity undermines women’s worth in the family because unpaid work is technically not seen as an economic (or revenue-generating) activity in Indian households. On the other hand, for women employed in a paid job, they continue bearing a heavier load in balancing work and family, which in the long run, also leaves them behind in maintaining parity with men in terms of wage and career progression.

The COVID-19 situation has widened these pre-existing gender-based inequalities. The pandemic has blurred the lines between home and workspace for everyone. But women were more “obliged” to handle household chores, take care of children, while simultaneously managing office work. This is true for some men too, but research has shown that working women worldwide, especially mothers, spent more time doing household chores than the paid work done by their male counterparts. Studies have also shown that men of the family spent more time doing child-care work than any other household chores, probably because for them, it feels more ‘rewarding’ to spend time with their children.

In India, too, irrespective of the women’s income levels, the onus of leading household work was (and still is) majorly borne by the women. Research has shown that for those with Rs 1 lakh as monthly income, 33.33% women spent 22-28 hours per week on unpaid work compared to men – which was 0% of men before the pandemic and 6.25% of  men during. Similar patterns have been observed for women in the income group Rs 50,000- 100,000 per month, where 25% and 8.3% of women spent 22-28 hours per week on unpaid domestic work, compared to 0% of men during the pandemic.

Also read: COVID-19 Economy: Drawing a ‘Laxman Rekha’ on Women’s Work Prospects

The situation is not very different in academia either. While academic productivity increased on average, the gains were not equally realised by both men and women. Women submitted fewer manuscripts and were less likely to be involved in peer reviews. This, the researchers believe, could be due to the increased caregiving responsibilities for women.

“I declined six invitations to talk and declined every single paper (16 of them) that came for review during this entire period. It is truly tough managing household, child-care, and full-time work all at the same time”, said Shama*, a professor at a leading college.

The child-care and education activities that could be outsourced earlier now demand a higher level of parental involvement. The case is more challenging for parents with younger kids, who have to be physically present to ensure that they attend the classes online and do the assigned after-class activities.

“I have a young child; I cannot do much of my professional work when her classes are going as I have to sit with her to make sure she attends the class attentively. As a result, I do miss deadlines sometimes…”, said Ruchi*, a researcher.

Another researcher, and also a professor, Ritu*, also shared a similar experience: “When our public school system announced it would be virtual, it was very tough for my Class 2 kid as I work full time. My new motto is ‘just say no.’ So, if anyone wonders why women are not taking new opportunities, now you know…”

An increase in responsibilities and total hours of unpaid/paid work for women also affects their psychosocial well-being. Shanti*, a leading menstrual health activist, talked about the daily struggle of simultaneously managing both family and work.

“As someone who juggles two part-time jobs, five elderly, one bright-eyed eight-year-old, and a very hectic home with chores and care work to the brim, it is very, very tough. The work is still manageable but the justifications, the guilt, the mind work are all very hard to balance,” said Shanti. Moreover, in some cases, due to working from home, the concept of rejuvenating during the weekends no longer exists. Some organisations have assumed 24×7 availability of their employees and expect pending work to be wrapped up over the weekend. This further exacerbates working women’s mental experiences, who anyway enjoy no break from unpaid work during weekends.

A home is often a place where gendered roles are created, reproduced, and constantly reinforced. The pandemic has had economic implications for everyone, but the burden has been multi-fold on women trying to balance both the household and the paid work. The magnitude of unpaid work has, anyway, been disproportionately borne by the women.

The COVID-19 situation has added to this unpaid work, especially in terms of increased sanitisation, cooking to increase immunity, and attending to the children’s education. These different work conditions for men and women can have long-lasting implications, including wage-raise and tenure, especially if women are unable to dedicate as much time towards paid work as men. Already four out of ten employed women have lost their jobs during the lockdown itself.

If the burden of the unpaid household work is not shared equally between different members of a family, women will continue to face the worst brunt of the pandemic and eventually be more susceptible to wage stagnation, career-flattening, and job loss.

*names changed to protect their privacy

Karan Babbar and Shreya Sharma are PhD scholars at Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, IIM Ahmedabad. Deepshika Chhetri is a health and nutrition consultant from Haryana and a health policy and system research fellow at IPH, Bengaluru.  

Featured image credit: Igor Ovsyannykov/Pixabay