Being a working woman in 2020

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation, Season 2 Episode 4: A daughter-in-law and mother-in-law duo talk about the challenges and opportunities for working women post-Covid

Founding Fuel

Being a working woman in any year was a challenge. But being a working woman in 2020 is altogether different. As home and office collide, what’s coming up from the collision? Is it bad leading to worse, or is there some good too?

The daughter-in-law and mom-in-law duo Sakshi Katiyar and Sangeeta Mall talk about what’s it like for them and what they are seeing. And they think there just might be a post-Covid boost to gender equality at home and at work.

They examine three broad themes:

1. The lockdown has impacted the two generations of women quite differently. What has WFH meant for each of them?

2. With husbands and wives stuck at home, what are the shifts in gender equations and division of labour?

3. What is changing in workplace practices? How is this new normal likely to affect women leaders at all levels? And are there new opportunities with WFH for women in small towns?

Highlights from their conversion:

Dining table moms: Work from home vs. work for home

Sangeeta: A lot of working women, especially those with kids, have a tough time coping with this double duty. I call them the dining table moms. They sit at their dining table with their laptop, so they can keep an eye on what’s happening in the home.

Sakshi: Commute used to be the guardrails in one’s schedule. Now when I’m not working for work, I find myself doing chores. [My husband] does help out but the bulk of the responsibility of managing a household lands on the woman’s shoulders.

Sangeeta: I’m a writer and have flexible timings. I have a fabulous desk at home, but I’d still rather get away to a pokey little office! Because there’s just something about domestic responsibilities that women are not able to walk away from.  

Sakshi: Being inside the home just brings the home inside you.

Is work losing out to home?

Sakshi: Women are leaving the workforce in staggering numbers. The decision is easy for them because of the wide gap in pay between the two genders.

Sangeeta: There is a flip side. The pandemic has been a boon to women like us [my generation]…. I have turned to online classes. There are so many hobbies to be picked up. My friends in senior management have older children and don’t have those responsibilities [that women with younger kids do] and they agree that they have never had it so good. Their home is truly their castle now. They are governing their work from home. And they are also getting the flexibility to pick up new hobbies, focus on their fitness and even take up new professional projects.

Sakshi: Before the lockdown [women my generation] liked the option of either going to the office or working from home. It’s a joykill when that flexibility went away and we were stuck with just working from home.

The commute was a sort of me time. We used that time to switch from a caretaker mode to career mode.

Men are stepping up at home  

Sangeeta: Millennial men come well-trained, especially if they’ve lived away from home during their younger years. They are more adept at managing things at home.

Sakshi: You are being a little too generous for our generation. But millennials do have a more equitable approach.

Sangeeta: Many older men expect to be waited hand and foot at home. [And even women of that generation expect men not to do house work] My mother for instance could never allow papa to even put his plate in the sink.

But we are seeing some change now. During the lockdown men saw first-hand how much hard work maintaining a home involves. In India especially. When domestic help disappeared, men had no choice but to step up.

I have heard several men, who have never washed a spoon in their life, now talk very expertly about vacuum cleaners.

A month into the lockdown standing mops became available in our neighbourhood store. And it was the men who were lining up to buy them.

But let us be cautiously optimistic. Things haven’t completely changed. We have a long way to go to come up even to the West’s standards of equity at home.

Men are becoming sensitised. But if they are to be housebroken, it’s the woman’s responsibility also to train them well, accept their mistakes, and become teachers rather than just critics.

What’s changing in the workspace?

Sakshi: The pandemic has introduced the human element into professional lives. If you want to run a domestic errand in the middle of the day, it is acceptable to block your calendar and let your team know you will be unavailable for a couple of hours.

Flexi-hours are coming into action truly. Companies recognise how much their employees are struggling. They are allowing you to cut back hours. Some offices are allowing unlimited vacation days. Funds are being released to set up a home office. You are being allowed to have more autonomy over your schedule.

These policies will help women in the grander scheme of things. But let’s not get too excited too soon.

Cutting back hours comes at a big price. Think of this: If women are more absent from the workplace—or in this case, their laptops—they are absent from high-performing projects. They might not be considered as a high performer, and might not be considered for a promotion.

Change and support truly has to come from home. So that they find the launchpad to propel their careers.

There are horror stories too where employers are asking women—and men too—to keep their cameras on. Or they are asking for a photo of where they have set up their stations.

Glimmers of opportunity for women

Sangeeta: In India employers were afraid to hire women because they were afraid of “losing” them to marriage. Or because women couldn’t work late due to safety and commute issues.

Now none of these things matter.

An ecommerce startup I am associated with here in Mumbai, has hired a young woman from Aligarh. She’s newly married and is finishing her CA. Pre-Covid, she would not have found a job given her situation.

Sakshi: Employers and employees can match skills, rather than being tied to timings and physical location.

In the US, companies in the Silicon Valley have announced that they need not hire only from the city; they will open positions to everyone in the country.

Indrajit Gupta: Between women learning to give up and men stepping up, which needs to happen more of?

Sakshi: It is hardcoded in women to care more about childcare, elder care, maintaining a household.  

I have a little trick: In my line of sight, I keep everything neat and tidy. After I finish work, I work outwards and see what else needs to be done at home.  

Back home

Indrajit: Sakshi wrote in her column about American families moving in with their parents and giving up this idea of a nuclear family. In India do we have an advantage here?

Sangeeta: Moving to the home town—places might not have Wi-Fi connectivity, so that becomes an issue. In a lot of families, parents and in-laws do share the load. But in a lot of other families, women end up looking after the elders in addition to looking after their kids.

I have not seen too many families moving back home to be with their parents. Though I have seen younger women go back home just to ward off the loneliness of being in the city all by themselves.

What can men in the workplace do to support their women colleagues?

Sakshi: Make space at the table for women. Imposter syndrome is real, even for men.

Sangeeta: Women too are learning to invest in themselves. They are offering business opportunities to each other.

Sakshi: People are also informally checking in on each other. And this informality is a more genuine touch.

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