Rethinking Work from a Gender Lens — Findings from a Qualitative Study on Urban Women’s Experiences of COVID-19 Lockdowns in India
Mainstream economics, for long, has been successful in firming up what constitutes the productive sphere of work. This points to the short-shrift paid to the kinds of work that bind a seamless exchange of transactions in the productive sphere, comprising, chiefly, the (social) agents with qualitatively higher bargaining power. I recently conducted a qualitative study on urban women’s disaggregated experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, hypothesising that the pre-existing inequalities and depth of burdens associated with women’s unpaid domestic work might get further institutionalised. Recent quantitative evidence is, in fact, indicative of this phenomenon: An increase in men’s contribution to housework in April 2020 saw a drastic reversal by December 2020 as they spent less time than the previous year (December 2019), worsening the gender gap in unpaid work at home.
I tried to disentangle the interaction between paid and unpaid work during the pandemic for two categories of urban women: The first includes those who have been working in the private sphere as homemakers; the second comprises mid-career and young professionals, engaged in ‘paid employment (SNA)’, according to Folbre’s classification. In my interviews, I found some very startling, yet intuitive and expected discoveries on how the (presumably) “modern” urban women may have internalised their gender-stereotyped roles. “Norm perceptions”, when dominating the latter category of women, and especially mid-career professionals, imply that working women do not want to be chastised by their social communities for not being good enough mothers, including any social role imposed by communities on the (cis-)woman.
My findings, therefore, reinforce that sexual division of labour within households has only exacerbated in crisis times. From urban women’s vantage points, I interpreted their self-perceptions of the terms ‘work’, ‘care’, and ‘burden’, situated within the temporal context of recurring COVID-19 lockdowns. When it comes to viewing the term ‘work’, most participants believe it is associated with its economic value in exchange for labour hours, i.e., monetary compensation. Women’s own perception of caring for family members as not work reflects the internalisation of gender roles in the current societal setup. Even though participants have a context-specific understanding of care, it is typically rooted in their historical experiences and existing family dynamics. Therefore, even if women can retain a semblance of agency by engaging in paid employment, it does not constitute a realisation of viewing unpaid domestic work as work, but a responsibility that needs to be carried out, irrespective of other commitments. The overlapping incidence of such responsibilities has, rather, made it difficult for them to adjust to the pandemic, especially in the initial months of lockdown. This constituted a source of burden for most women.
While young professionals recognise the insidious nature of patriarchy, they agree that disassociating with housework or not actively participating in it might be counterproductive. Different constituents of housework, like cooking, for example, are useful to them, either because their lifestyles before the pandemic demanded it or that they simply enjoyed doing that activity. Mid-career professionals and homemakers, with children, also realise that housework should be a gender-neutral phenomenon. This is the silver lining of the study: Women, across different groups in the study, understand that housework is not just a woman’s concern.
These findings have implications for prospective policies in the field of work, as paid and unpaid work need to be viewed in consonance for an equal and equitable distribution of women’s commitments in both spheres. If policies consider women’s work as work, insofar it is remunerative, they side-line the overlapping burdens associated with reproductive work, which remain subsidised in identity-free market transactions. The pandemic, therefore, can hasten policies influencing Indian women and men to equitably share unpaid domestic work, irrespective of their commitments in the productive sphere. This requires structural transformations that do not continue to displace women, as a group, out of the labour force after economic, or in this case, health shocks, as a recent study has reiterated.
While these structural transformations can unambiguously benefit women’s engagement in paid work, the seemingly gender-neutral manifestation of such policies should not preclude the qualitative dimension of unpaid domestic work as a woman’s natural inclination. It is imperative, however, that any policy, especially wages-for-housework policies, which have gained prominence in recent times, aiming to make visible the sphere of women’s unpaid work, contest with the pre-existing barriers that women face to join the labour force. For example, paid domestic work falls within the informal sector in India. In urban India, approximately 71 percent of women workers are employed in informal settings and 50 million of them are employed as domestic workers. A wages-for-housework policy, in this context, has the potential todisplace such workers, as homemakers will now be paid to perform the same tasks. In my study, I highlight the case of a paid (informal) domestic worker, who ended up being the sole earning member of her family during COVID-induced blockade of (conventional) economic activities. Therefore, more studies should map the interaction between paid and unpaid work, as a consequence of the pandemic, in the context of this vulnerable group too.
Even though women recognise the need for men to partake in housework as equal stakeholders, their contribution may be a one-off commitment as their broader priorities might be construed differently by both genders. Similarly, the heteronormative underpinning of such contextualisation of work cannot preclude a comprehensive analysis of who has lesser bargaining power in a patriarchal set-up. This necessitates capturing qualitative and quantitative insights that can supply disaggregated and context-specific data.
Additionally, prospective policies aimed at the community level, workplaces, etc., must account for the fact that housework is undervalued, firstly, at the micro-level of the household. This household, taken as a single productive unit, limits the scope to disentangle the presently unbiased power structures that originate within it. Hence, at the macro level, unpaid domestic work continues to be unrecognised as work. This phenomenon is deeply interlocked with women’s persisting social, political, and economic position in Indian society. In my discussions with one of the participants, we looked at how Indian women need to supply the name of the male head of the household while filling out a form for opening a bank account. Therefore, microscopic policy changes that recognise women as individuals in their own right, within the household and beyond, can have ripple effects across other crucial policy interventions for women’s comprehensive empowerment.
Conclusively, from my study, I have attempted to bring out the multiple coexisting realities of women’s precarious engagement in the area of work that includes informal or limited opportunities of engagement and, most importantly, high-incidence of unpaid domestic work. These concerns perversely interact with each other to limit women’s right to self-determination. Similarly, the self- internalisation and -perception of social norms that assume women’s natural attribute to performing housework and penalise them for deviating, respectively, need to be dramatically exposed and expelled. This study, therefore, has portrayed urban women’s lived accounts of the pandemic with the hope to normatively renegotiate women’s engagement in any sphere of work that makes existence enjoyable for its own sake.
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This article has been written by Tanya Rana, an M.A. Public Policy candidate at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University. She is interested in exploring the economic and non-economic transactions in any society from a feminist standpoint. She had in-depth conversations with eight participants, between the age groups of 22 to 47 years, for this study. You can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or social media (Twitter @tanya_r22; or LinkedIn).