A year into the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve already heard every kind of complaint about living in lockdown and specifically, working from home. The frustrations of always being video call-ready with a tidy background and a good internet connection, the endless meetings that could definitely have been emails, and the inescapable blurring of lines between the office and the home – all these issues have made working from home exhausting for some. Yet, there’s an upside to this new work-from-home culture, especially for the Indian women.
Yes, women have been under even more pressure during the pandemic than men. Working mothers have had to juggle household and childcare duties along with the demands of their professional lives. Yet, once again they have risen to the challenge. For many women employees, the forced work from home has come as a blessing in disguise – it’s a step forward toward achieving equality in the workplace.
One survey found that nearly 40 per cent of women working in the tech sector prefer to work from home, even though they also admit to doing the bulk of the housework, homeschooling, and childcare. So, what gives? How come so many women prefer to work from home, even when they bear the burden of extra work?
India, as it turns out, has been an anomaly, with most industries seeing more gender parity in the workforce because of the lockdown. We have some of the lowest rate of female labour participation in the world at 30 per cent, but as of July last year, there has been a whopping seven per cent rise, according to a LinkedIn report. According to one of Uber's blog if WFH continues to be an option, 11 million Indian women could join the workforce. And the numbers are only expected to surge. With fluid hours or the option to work on select days, over 100 million Indian women with secondary degrees are likely to find employment.
For many women employees, the forced work from home has come as a blessing in disguise.
Working from home provides the kind of flexibility that is impossible to find in most conventional workplaces. Corporate India is known for long hours and late nights, unpaid overtime, and hardly any time off — an environment that is not always conducive to those who have responsibilities outside the office. But WFH gives women the liberty to manage their day better – a day that is not dictated by swiping your office access card by 9 am.
One working mother points out that work from home allows women to multitask more effectively. “Re-entering the office after my maternity leave, it was so hard to go back to work and be away from home for eight or ten hours. I’d have my little one on my mind all the time and in case something went amiss, I’d have to hurry back home,” says 34-year-old Meher Kapadia, a data analyst working for a delivery app. “Now I can be making lunch for my daughter while being on a phone call, and supervise her playing when I’m sitting and writing up reports. Suddenly, I’m around more. And it also means I don’t get to miss any milestones – like the first time she said, ‘Mama’”. Squeezing in those extra minutes adds up for a busy parent. Plus, with the option of planning her work day according to what suits her the best, Kapadia believes she can achieve her professional goals quicker.
It’s not just mothers who are finding it easier to establish a balance while working from home. For 25-year-old client servicing executive Kirti, the lockdown has been a blessing in disguise. “I can’t believe I used to spend hours just prepping to get to the office – getting my hair and make-up done, ironing clothes, looking “proper” because that is what is expected of “professional women”. The last year has shown not just me but also my boss that it’s a total waste of time!” With more time on her hands, Shruti has been able to take on freelance projects which help her hone her passion – graphic designing – and make some extra bucks. Working from home is a win-win, as she no longer has to deal with the everyday sexism of clients. “Now, they can only judge me by the quality of my work.”
There is certainly something to be said for work from home levelling the playing field for women. Traditionally, working women have been encouraged to stay close to home, and not spend late hours or take on extra work that might give their career a boost, but would take a toll on the myriad responsibilities they are faced with at home. The home has long been considered the domain of women, one that should take priority over any other achievements — all while their offices provide little support. Before work-from-home, many career women in India were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Working from home provides the kind of flexibility that is impossible to find in most conventional workplaces.
Few women recognise this better than 48-year-old Sheila Sundar, who used to be an English teacher before her marriage. With her kids grown up and more time on her hands, Sheila decided to re-enter the workforce as a copywriter. “It wasn’t easy for working women when I was young, but it’s even harder now that I’m older.” After facing constant rejection at job interviews, Sheila resolved to take things in her own hand. Last May, she started her own consultancy, helping small businesses market their products. Now she has on a team of three other women, each working from their houses in different cities across the country. “So many women my age have turned entrepreneurs in the lockdown. I think the pandemic that forced us to stay indoors helped us think out of the box.”
Sheila and her business are thriving at home, along with so many other women who are finally finding some relief from a work culture that was never built with their needs in mind. But is this new shift in the way we work here to stay? Some organisations like Uber are leading from the front. Its employees can now opt for flexible work hours and can work from any location.
If companies want to contribute in creating equal spaces, they should take the lessons they’ve learned from an obligatory work-from-home policy forward into the brave new COVID-free world, too. Because one thing is for sure, WFH is what Works for Her.
Read here about Uber effort towards making every opportunity #WithinHerReach