'Internal’ Conflict - a reflection on WFH today.
The onset of Covid-19 and its declaration as a global pandemic by the WHO on the 11th of March, 2020 fundamentally altered the very nature of workspaces. The breaking down of the orthodox 9-5 working model, the ease of access and the blurring of hierarchical bureaucratic boundaries were among the first few massively noticeable changes in the world of work. As the world grappled with the shift in the base of work to a remote mode and work-from-home became the new normal, millions of people around the world lost their jobs, and were pushed into the throes of poverty. As is the case with all economic and social fallouts, here too women made up the majority of the workforce who lost their sources of livelihood. While in the initial days of the WFH setup, the prospect of increase in gender equality was cited as an advantage, the later days and better research revealed quite the opposite.
In order to understand why WFH might be toppling the blocks of gender equality, it is important to understand the cultural and social context of the nature of work women have been involved in. Historically women have been employed majorly in the unorganized, informal sector and with the base of work shifting to a remote mode, the employment opportunities declined as a lot of the unorganized work involved physical labour or working for or in small businesses which do not necessarily have the resources to make sudden changes. Further, women have also constituted the majority of the population involved in unpaid work such as household chores, childcare, etc which do not earn them a revenue and therefore are not seen as economic activities. For the small number of women involved in the urban, organized sector, sexism in the workspace, juggling between the traditional domestic work and office work and transcending the barriers of bureaucratic hierarchy to break the glass ceiling have served as major roadblocks. To add to this are the cultural roadblocks such as the status symbol associated with women staying at home, concerns for safety while commuting to work and the traditional idea that women are only supposed to procreate and look after the house have plagued the lives of women.
In the aforementioned context, with the added disadvantage of Covid-19, the world of work for women went further into disarray as the informal sector came to a complete standstill and millions of women lost their jobs. For working women from urban, organized spaces, WFH added to the already blurring line between personal and professional space, with the onus of domestic, unpaid work falling completely on women, leaving them with no time for leisure. Researchers observed that even in households where both the members were working women were expected to carry out the domestic work along with their office work and not only that they were expected to be innovative with the dishes they were cooking since they were ‘staying at home’, they were also expected to cater to every need of the family members and pay attention to them despite the working hours or the workload. It was also seen that women who were unable to give time to their family were often plagued with internal conflict and guilt for having prioritised their career and the WFH setup only seemed to deepen the roots of this guilt. The inherent patriarchal upbringing that has taught women to prioritise others over themselves and their aspirations and their portrayal as the ever sacrificing nurturer has made sure that the guilt stays and even for women who understand the intricacies and workings of such patriarchal notions, escaping this guilt has been a task. The ever increasing stress of flexible work timings overlapping with domestic chores have only seemed to burden women more, rather than relieve the burden as was initially expected from the WFH setup and has pushed women further into crisis with upheaval in family relations and work-life balance.
While WFH does have its advantages such as increase in employment opportunities for women as it battles the safety issue, these advantages are however mostly limited to the urban, organized sector, leaving large number of women from the informal sector without a taste of any advantage at all.
A year of Covid-19 and WFH later, we are still left to evaluate and understand the repercussions of the precarious and unique position of working women brought about by the pandemic and strategies to battle the conflicts, both external and internal, that stand in the way.