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'Burden Of Unpaid Work Still On Them': Economist Mitali Nikore On Factors Driving Women's Exodus From Jobs

By Sana Fazili
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'Burden Of Unpaid Work Still On Them': Economist Mitali Nikore On Factors Driving Women's Exodus From Jobs

In early June, several women working at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) reportedly submitted their resignations and called it quits. The reason? TCS ended its work-from-home policy that was necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. As Covid-19 abated as a global health risk, organisations resumed working from the office.

Even as India progresses in the fields of female education and overall economic growth, it hasn’t translated into increased numbers of women in the workforce. The participation of women in the workforce has “secularly” tanked since independence, most of it in rural areas. The pay gap between men and women has widened too, from 59% in 1993 to 72% in 2018, according to a study published in the Journal of International Women's Studies.  

If the overall labour force shrunk from 3% between November 2019 to November 2020, it was 20% for women and just 2% for men.  

Societal norms, the burden of unpaid work, and mobility constraints for women are some of the factors that impact their representation in labour force. 

Having the flexibility to work from home has been helpful to women because they continue to be in the proximity of their caregiving responsibilities while they continue to work.  

The Core spoke to Mitali Nikore, a feminist economist and founder of policy and economics think-tank Nikore Associates, about why women are choosing to quit their jobs as more and more organisations are ending the work-from-home policy and the other factors that impact their participation and representation in the workforce.     

"There's that impression that maybe you are not even working from home, and because of the burden of unpaid work, women are more likely to want to opt for the entire flexible work that they are entitled to and they do it. Then they are told that you are basically not working if you avail a work-from-home day. These kinds of stereotypes and misimpressions result in a very negative and toxic environment and then the women will be like what's the point of this, it's just better for me to completely leave the job," Nikore said. 

Here are some edited excerpts from  the interview:  


As organisations are going back to work from the office, after over two years of working from home in the pandemic, why are more women leaving the workforce? 

We have been supporting a study that was commissioned by Zoom. We have contributed to that study on hybrid work and the gender implications of hybrid work. We interviewed almost 40-45 employers and we interviewed a lot of women, particularly in the corporate sector in order to actually arrive at these findings.

Firstly, when we look at hybrid work, it is tailored to provide flexibility to the workers and women need this much more because at the end of the day, when we look at the burden of unpaid work, that falls entirely on women.

If you look at the Government of India's data, Indian women on average are doing five to six hours of unpaid work every day, whereas men are doing 30 minutes. In this situation and with this much of a gender imbalance, these hybrid work arrangements provide women with much-needed relief. 

Even when a woman is employed, she's still doing much more unpaid work than employed men. In fact, unemployed men are still doing less unpaid work than employed women. So, even if a man is not working, he's still not supporting household work.

Hybrid work makes it much easier for women to manage these responsibilities which are currently unfair.

Now when you start, the hybrid work arrangement and you start saying please come to the office and it starts off with two days a week at home and three days a week in the office, for example. In many cases, what happens is that the office culture is not very conducive to women or anybody really working from home.

There's that impression that oh, maybe you are not even working from home, and because of this unpaid work burden, women are more likely to want to opt for the entire flexible work that they are entitled to and they do it.

Then they are told that you are not working if you avail for a work-from-home day. These kinds of stereotypes and misimpressions on what it means to work from home result in a very negative and toxic environment and then the women will be like what's the point of this, it's just better for me to completely leave the job.

The flexibility is only in name and not in reality. So you can have a hybrid work policy, but it will mean nothing if the management and the senior staff of the company don't enforce it.

Is there a particular reason we are seeing much more resignations from women in the tech industry? 

I think the first reason is that tech companies are the ones that have more women in the corporate sector. If we look at the overall representation of women in the workforce, let's first segment by rural and urban, 75% of India's female workforce is actually rural. Only 25% is urban. Amongst the urban women, there are some specific occupations and areas where they work and the banking sector and financial services in the corporate sector are the overwhelming majorities where women are working.

In such a scenario, when the IT sector goes back to an extended hybrid work situation or an extended work-from-home situation as compared to other sectors you see the impact coming through. A lot of working women are there. 

During the pandemic, people appreciated working from home because it saved them commute time, among several other things. Was it a boon for women as well?  

It's a mixed picture. During Covid, we did three rounds of consultations for different research papers that we were producing. We spoke to about 75 women and women's organisations and the one thing which was common across all of them was the added burden of household responsibilities during Covid.

Of course, some of them did say that they saved commute time, etc. But for them, the amount of domestic work that was added during Covid and far outweighed the time savings from commuting.

The second concern is the physical separation of office and work rights from the home. That is something where we found there was a mixed response. So typically amongst women who did not have children, we felt that they valued the separation, they valued the fact that they could go to an office where they could do their work, finish that in the office and then come back home, you know.

This was also observed in those job rules and sectors where you are not doing continuous work, like in a lot of knowledge and economy-based jobs, you are working even up till midnight. 

But in other sectors, jobs like manufacturing, hospitality, and retail jobs cannot go hybrid. When we spoke to these women during COVID, they definitely missed the work environment because they felt like they were not really able to do their jobs from home. 

When it comes to knowledge workers, definitely the ones with kids support work-from-home flexibility because they just felt like they were more in control of their time.

Being visible, and being at the office is still a very overwhelming priority for most workers and particularly for women where the misimpression that whether they are working from home and not shopping, is something very prevalent amongst managers. Growth opportunities are linked to physical presence in front of the manager. 

Have organisations failed to retain women because they are not flexible enough to give them the option of working from home?

There's a study on this by Deloitte, where women have said that they are so overwhelmed and stressed with the double burden of household work and office work with the expectations of excelling in all fields that there is no end time to their work.

When flexible work was introduced, you sort of ended the end time of the office, because you now said that work can be done from any time anywhere is the same thing as work can be done all the time everywhere.

Definitely, women have reported in that survey feeling overwhelmed, feeling like their performance is constantly being judged. It's completely linked with social norms as well.

If you look at the UNDP report on social norms, it actually shows that 50% of the global population today believes that men are more entitled to a job, especially in times of scarcity. So if half the world believes that women don't even have the right to have a job, then imagine how much the internal pressure is to prove yourself. 

It is fairly evident that putting pressure in India is fairly high compared to many other countries, like in Europe where the labour laws and worker laws are meant to, you know, protect the worker mental health and safeguard the workers. The phenomenon, we are definitely seeing is women getting discouraged and Covid has been a major driver of that because Covid is the one that broke down the wall between working from home and working from the office.

Has the pandemic changed the way women work, like how they worked earlier, how they work now?

This is an interesting question from a macro perspective. If we look at the data from the periodic labour force participation survey, you would think that it has not because at a macro level, whether it is post Covid or pre-covid, 70 to 75% of the women who are working were still working in agriculture, pretty much on their own farms or they were working as self-employed workers on their own businesses to 3/4 of the workforce. In rural areas, it is continuing to do what it was doing pre-Covid.

And in fact, there's been an influx of women who have actually migrated back from urban to rural areas to work in agriculture.

This could have been women who were previously employed as construction workers or domestic workers who lost their jobs and went back to rural areas and then the data shows that they are not yet returned back as of 2021-22 which is the last recorded data set. Reverse migration will be stopped and they will start coming back because 2023 is when things are much more back to pre-Covid scenario.

So definitely, when we say that the situation changed for the Indian woman, it is not your urban woman. You know, it's the rural woman and for her, the situation has not changed in the sense that she's still doing the same.

How will the economy be affected if we women don’t participate in the workforce?  

Whenever any skilled worker exits the workforce, there is a huge productivity loss for the firm and then this becomes an economy-wide trend when it becomes a macroeconomic trend, then it hurts the overall labour productivity. Now, when you've had so many skilled women workers drop out of the labour market without a commensurate number of other workers coming back. Of course, it is going to hurt labour productivity.

But these productivity differential impacts are not that obvious in India because the population is very large and when you look at the monthly changes in the workforce, it is interesting to see that as women were reducing, the men were increasing.  

A lot of men who lost their jobs during Covid have been re-employed and they were re-employed much faster on a month-on-month basis than women were.

The macroeconomic labour productivity impact then gets masked to some extent.

But of course, at a micro level, at a firm level, there will be productivity losses and more resources will have to go into investing into upskilling the staff.

I think in an economy like India, because the proportion of women in the workforce is so small as compared to men, the productivity impact doesn't translate at a macro level the way it does in the US.  

What needs to change in our homes and in our society so that women don’t have to take the call to choose between pursuing a career and taking care of the household? 

We have to make some things normal. For example, taking a break for anybody, be it a man or a woman, should be recognised as something which is completely normal. If you had to take a year off for your child, deal with your health issues or spend some time with your family, what is wrong with that? Why do we view it so negatively as an employer? If a person is skilled and qualified and they have been away from the workforce for maybe a year or two, I'm sure with some amount of re-skilling, they can be reintegrated and they can be very productive.

This negative characterisation of taking a break for a year or two, especially for household purposes is viewed very negatively.  

Is commute and proximity to work for women, in rural as well as urban areas, a factor when it comes to taking up jobs?

Absolutely. When I started working on the issues of women in the labour force in India in 2018 or so. At that time we were experiencing a trend where there was a decline every year in the labour force qualification rate. The reason for that was first of all occupational segregation where women were getting slotted into specific sectors and roles.

At that time, we noticed that educational gap, rights, and gender gaps in education historically were one of the major reasons for women staying out of the workforce.

Over the years, there have been social norms that meant mobility restrictions, women were not being allowed to actually leave their homes. And then of course, unpaid care work even at that time was one of the reasons because of the time poverty.

But now in the last five years, I feel like my thinking has changed a little bit on some of these aspects.

Occupational segregation and unpaid work continue to be legal. But mobility restrictions have loosened, yet mobility barriers that result from having gender-blind public transport infrastructure and public spaces which are not created to be gender inclusive are becoming a big barrier.  Because of the lack of safety in public transport and public spaces, you are deterred from making that choice.

When it comes to sexual harassment on public transport, the kind of experiences that we have heard from women are expected, yet shocking.  

It is almost like by the end of a focus group discussion, you will feel that the city is attacking its women because whether it's staring or inadvertently touching that you can't prove anything. But it happens and as a woman, you can't prove it. 

Is there a lack of empathy at workplaces for women? Will it help to have more representation and inclusivity in leadership roles?

Definitely, yes. The diversity at any level is helpful. The more diverse, the better because at the end of the day, if you are a woman manager, one of the major reasons, in fact, as we were talking about the IT sector, why women are leaving is also because the IT sector management is overwhelmingly male. At the end of the day, having interacted with a lot of men in senior positions and now in middle management, in many, cases have seen male managers who are just simply dismissive. 

I have seen that with men and women that they may not be aware, you make them aware and you sensitise them, they get sensitised.  But it is more likely that a man will be more hostile than a woman.  

If you look at South Korea, it's an indicator of where one can go wrong when advocating for equality. The president in power is somebody who has been brought on to power on the backs of votes from young men who feel that the conversation around gender equality is about providing additional incentives for women or additional support for women. I am getting the sense that the discourse in India is also proceeding in that direction.  



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