Labor market in India has long suffered from the problem of glaring gender divide. In this blog the author explores whether the ongoing pandemic has widened this divide further? Let’s find out.
The worst of the Covid-19 pandemic likely still lingers in our not-so distant memories. The pandemic came into our lives as a sudden rupture and led us into collective, global despair. As many have pointed out, a virus transcends social barriers and leaves everyone vulnerable to contagion. All sections of society experienced deep precarity in the form of lockdowns, health-care breakdowns and instability.
This being said, it is undeniable that the social and political fall-out from Covid-19 affected some more than others. The breakdown of systems during the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and exposed long-standing cracks in our social fabric. Some of these cracks were especially jarring, and exposed the deep-rooted vines of inequality and discrimination. While the pandemic was a violent departure from normalcy, it also forces us to confront what ‘normalcy’ even means. How are women and minorities located within ‘normal’ society? What roles and forms of work are they expected to fulfill, and how did the pandemic intensify these expectations?
Work: A Paradigm Shift
Many aspects of everyday life were completely transformed by the pandemic, including work and labor. While some switched to a Work From Home model and explored freelance work, others experienced unemployment, homelessness and destabilization. The glaring photographs of migrant workers in the early stages of the pandemic revealed the dire state of work and housing in India. In this turbulent context, the gender divide in the country’s labor market widened and further marginalized women and gender minorities.
In Numbers: Gender & Labour during Covid
The relationship between gender and labor has always been fraught in India. According to data from the World Bank, the percentage of women in the Indian labor force has been steadily declining over the last decade. The pandemic came as a paradigm shift in this already unequal context, and had direct economic consequences for gender minorities.
As of 2021, women’s labor force participation in India had fallen to an abysmal 11%. In contrast, men’s labor force participation fell to 71%. Trans-people were among the worst affected by the pandemic, because the restrictions on mobility affected their limited earning opportunities. Studies also suggest that women were 7 times more likely to lose their job as compared to men, and 11 times more likely to not return to work after the pandemic. While India’s gender wage gap had been slowly improving in the past decades, the pandemic undid years of progress in this aspect. One survey reveals that the gender wage gap grew by up to 7% over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
All Women Are Working Women
These numbers are deeply concerning, but ultimately not unexpected. Gender has always been a site of contestation at the workplace in India. Sexist attitudes have impacted employment, created hostile workspaces and unequal opportunities for women and gender minorities long before the pandemic ever broke out. These sexist attitudes are steeped into our beliefs and reinforced by our norms and language. Even the term ‘working-woman,’ a common one in the Indian parlance, subtly suggests that women at work is something out of the norm. While a man at work is simply a regular man, a woman at work is placed into the category of an ‘other’ – that of a working woman. The term is also used to contrast ‘working’ women with homemakers, the underlying implication being that women’s unpaid work is not real or legitimate work. To understand the nuances of labor and gender during the pandemic, it is necessary to recognize that all women are, in fact, working women.
In this context, it is not surprising that ‘working women’ – ie, all women, took a hit during the pandemic. The pandemic brought about new cultural fears, anxieties and fractures. In many families, women act as a sort of ‘social glue’ and perform the invisible work of managing emotions and alleviating anxieties. This kind of ‘women’s work’ only skyrockets during a time of crisis, and often, like with most invisible work, goes unacknowledged.
Seeing Gender, Doing Labor
Many of the contexts that frame women, work and inequality don’t get adequately captured by traditional frameworks of economic analysis There are complex social and political factors that widened the gender-wage gap and decreased female labor force participation in India during the pandemic. While statistics show us the ground reality, it doesn’t tell us why women and minorities tend to suffer more during crises and why their labor is devalued. So why did the gender divide in labor widen during the pandemic?
With India being a patriarchal society, many women are seen as economic burdens to their families. This pushes women away from education or employment and guides them towards marriage, child care and house-hold work. The burden on women only intensified as covid broke out and resulted in more house-hold duties and care responsibilities. Due to gender norms, women were more easily absorbed into the invisible and unpaid care-work that comes with child-care, domestic work and caring for the sick and elderly. With lockdowns and limited mobility, many women were squarely limited to the domestic sphere, which affected their ability to take up paid work. It is a well documented fact that rates of domestic violence and intimate partner violence increased drastically during the pandemic. This bleak statistic is reflective of the violence that often accompanies being limited to the domestic sphere, especially in times of crises. Since the home is a site of unpaid work and labor for women, it can be argued that increasing domestic violence is as much an issue of labor as it is of gender. Domestic violence limits economic security and freedom for women and can prevent them from taking on paid employment.
The impact of the pandemic on trans-people also reflects pre-existing stigmas and systemic discrimination. Widespread discrimination against trans-people has historically prevented them from accessing various white collar jobs or entering formal employment. Discrepancies in official ID’s and social biases limit economic avenues for trans and non-binary individuals in India. A survey from the National Human Rights commission stated that 92% of trans-gender individuals in India were denied viable economic opportunities. The structural inequality pushes many trans-people to seek money on the streets or take up risky forms of work to earn a living. The pandemic restrictions took a toll on these limited earning capacities for trans-people and further deepened the gender divide in labor.
An event like a worldwide pandemic acts like a rupture. It dislodges existing structures and creates new insecurities and anxieties. While the gender divide in labor is not a new one, the pandemic inhibited progress and allowed historic inequalities to resurface and intensify.
Why We Need A Feminist Perspective of Labour during Pandemics.
The deepening of gender inequalities in the context of labor is not unique to either the Covid 19 pandemic or the Indian subcontinent. The Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa displayed a ‘feminisation’ of the disease, where women were more susceptible to the debilitating virus. Traditional gender norms around labor meant that women were more likely to be caregivers to the ill; either as unpaid work, or as healthcare workers. Ebola also directly affected women’s livelihoods, who made up a significant part of the small-scale farming industry in Ebola-affected countries. For instance, in Liberia, women consist of close to 85 per-cent of daily market traders. The limited mobility and increased travel costs due to Ebola had a disproportionate impact on the financial security of these women. The gender divide in labor during times of crisis is a global pattern that can be observed across countries.
The relegation of women to certain types of labor has distinct implications for both public health and the economy. The gendered consequences of the pandemic exposes the dire need for a human-rights perspective towards labor. Even with historical precedents of gender divides during pandemics in other parts of the world, little was done in India to manage the inequity in our labor markets. Many Indian women are already situated precariously within labor and economic markets; this precarity can quickly become destabilizing when a pandemic or emergency strikes. To move forward, we must recognize that both work and illness are acutely gendered. This recognition must inform policy and pandemic response, to allow us to shape a more equal society.
At the end of the day, the gender divide in labor is not simply an economic issue. It is also an existential issue – how should we rethink work and life for a more equitable society? How can we make a society that is more resilient, instead of one that re-opens unjust divisions in times of crisis? These are questions that cut to the core of our lives, existence and emotions. To rethink work, life, labor and gender, we must also rethink how we relate to each other at a personal level. While a more equal ethic of labor requires paradigm shifts, new policies and resource distributions, it also requires deeper empathy and a new vision of relational structures like the family.
A feminist perspective is ultimately one that is rooted in radical empathy. It sees women and gender minorities as full, deserving human beings who are entitled to rights at work and compensation for their invisible labor. It recognises the small and large ways in which gender minorities are denied full personhood. An equal society is fundamentally a humane one. If we are to get through the next pandemic, we need not only better policies and structures, but also a more humane vision of the future.
About the Author …..
Anagha Smrithi is a writer and researcher from Bangalore, India. She has an MA in Media & Cultural Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Currently, she works as an Editorial Assistant at the Journal of Creative Communications. She is also a published poet.