The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 adopted by the United Nations Member States in 2015 as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. It is one of the 17 goals and comprises of nine out of 169 targets as mentioned in the SDGs. India is a signatory to the United Nations and has pledged to ‘leave no one behind’ in attaining Sustainable Development by year 2030.
However, the social indicators regarding women’s employment conditions are dismal in India. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, which uses pre-pandemic data, India ranks 112 out of 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. In this period, women made up 20% of the workforce, where less than a quarter of them were in the labor sector, putting India among the bottom 10 countries in the world in terms of women’s workforce participation. Moreover, women earned 35% less on average than men (the global average is 16 percent) and their share of job losses resulting from the industry mix alone was estimated at 17% – they actually account for 23% of overall job losses. These were, by itself enough concern for unequal gender equation at work. Then COVID-19 happened and changed the whole paradigm.
Sustainable Advancements and Aspire for Her Foundation recently conducted a comprehensive research in India among the working women during the third quarter of the financial year 2020-2021 on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their professional lives. The study aimed to understand how women were affected in each of the four variables viz. industry sector, occupation, position and work experience.
Some of the key preliminary findings from the research are as follows:
|IMPACT||KEY FINDINGS ACCORDING TO VARIABLES|
|Industry Sector||Occupation||Position||Work Experience|
|Negatively affected||Self-employed women were most negatively affected.||Students and women who lost jobs were more negatively affected.||Junior/ entry level positions were most affected among those negatively affected.||Women with 11-15 years of work experience were most affected among those negatively affected.|
|Both positively and negatively affected||Corporate, Academic, Government, Civil Society, Healthcare were impacted both positively and negatively.||Professional women and those taking a break were mostly impacted both positively and negatively.||All women were impacted both positively and negatively.||Most women were impacted both positively and negatively.|
|Women’s perception of themselves as compared to men||Women from Academic, Government and Civil Society perceive as being worse off than men.||Most women perceive as men and women being equally impacted.||Most women perceive as men and women being equally impacted.||Women with more than 26 years of experience perceive as being worse off than men.|
|Perception of women who are negatively impacted, on the impact on men||All women think men have been negatively impacted as well.|
The research points out that self-employed women, students and women who lost their job were negatively impacted more during the pandemic. On the other hand, women who have just entered the job market or in the junior positions and those with 11-15 years of experience were the ones who were most impacted among those negatively impacted. This is indeed an important finding as it has the potential to affect the outcome of the SDG5 in the years to come. This data has a direct correlation to women entering and surviving in the job market. If women are affected in their formative years, in higher education and then again at their jobs at the entrance level, it may act as a barrier to women entering the job market in the first place and also in keeping their jobs. This is indeed ared-flag moment as the Global Gender Gap Report of 2017 had already noted large gaps in the availability of women talent for entry-level positions(Economic Times, November 2, 2017). Now, if there is a glitch in entry level employee experience, women may feel even more reluctant to join the workforce, thereby challenging the gender gap parity further. On the other hand, women will also think many times before initiating self-employment as they are the worst impacted by Covid-19. The pandemic is expected to have an effect on the 13.8% self-employed women, many of whom are microenterprises and self-financed, contributing in sectors like tourism, education, and beauty, which have been ravaged by the COVID-19 lockdowns (Foreign Policy, 2020). This is a vicious cycle that has the potential to negatively affect the gender equation in the workplace.
Infact, Oxfam India estimates the economic loss from women losing their jobs during the pandemic at about $216 billion, thus directly impacting 8% from the country’s gross domestic product (Economic Times, June 26, 2020).
On the other hand, women working in the Corporate, Academic, Government, Civil Society and Healthcare sectors were impacted both positively and negatively, and so were professional women and those who were taking a break. Most women from various positions and work experience also felt the same. This is an interesting phenomenon. Covid-19 showed women the enchantment of flexi-time and work from home. Most women on one side complained of overwork due to increased household work; yet, on the other hand, were thankful of their family time. One of the verbatims recorded sums it up insightfully:
“’Work from Home’ became an option as it was not a part of our organisational policy before the pandemic. Bonding with my child became better owing my physical presence at home. Further healthy intake of food with home cooked food (was an additional boon), because eating out got restricted.”
This brings us to predict, will women go back to full time office work again or will they be preferring to join the gig economy? As per a survey by Talent 500, there is already an emergence of gig economy or remote based work because of the flexibility and different learning opportunities (Business Standard, 2020). Women are definitely going to see an opportunity here.
While most women across various occupation and position perceive that women and men were equally impacted; women from the Academic, Government and Civil Society perceive as being worse off than men. This is thought-provoking as although these women reported to be both negatively and positively impacted by COVID-19, they perceived women to be worse off than men. Most of the reason centered around domestic work, (unpaid) care work and child care. Infact, according to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), on an average, women in India spend close to 5 hours per day on unpaid care work, while men spend a mere 29 minutes. Cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, are tasks that a majority of women continue to perform alone, and this gap is growing (Sivaraman, 2020), especially during the lockdown period when women did not have external domestic help (which is the backbone of the Indian society especially for working women). Maybe, this perspective led elderly women (having work experience of more than 26 years) perceive women being marginally worse off than men.
Interestingly, all women who themselves have been negatively impacted contemplate men have been negatively impacted as well. Infact, one of the verbatims that aptly summarizes their thoughts is:
“COVID-19 is not a fight between men and women because both has suffered a lot professionally.”
The pandemic had an effect on the entire eco-system. Most of the industries saw a downturn and only the industries dealing with essential goods thrived during this period. Hence, both men and women got impacted equally. Infact, as per the study by Anarock and Retailers Association of India (RAI) titled ‘Indian Retail – Certainty Despite Headwinds,’ essential commodities like food and grocery is and shall experience exponential growth in the coming quarters, while beauty, personal care, wellness and home essentials are expected to take longer with 4-6 quarters to recover fully (Business Line, 2020); which also suggests that all the people involved in these sectors – whether men or women have been and will be equally affected.
Needless to say, COVID-19 has brought about a new paradigm shift on the employment figures in India with the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy’s new report of 27% unemployment rate. It is predicted that the pandemic is only going to add to this decline, but this unemployment is going to be borne mostly by women. Already, at least 4 in 10 women in India have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to the latest data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey. In other words, between March and April, 2020, an estimated 17 million women were rendered jobless, in both the formal and informal sectors (Foreign Policy, 2020). Moreover, due to COVID-19, over 47% of Indian women are witnessing psychological issues such as anxiety or stress as per the 10th edition of the LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index (Economic Times, September 11, 2020). Unless these issues are resolved soon, SDG5 may be under challenge especially the targets that aims of recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate and of ensuring women’s full and effective participation; equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life; and adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.
Author: Nayan Mitra, PhD, CSR Expert in India