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Work from Home and Domestic space: Exploring Gendered experiences “at work”

ABSTRACT

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, almost all the institutions worldwide have turned themselves to the online mode. Similarly, in India, schools, colleges, and offices are running through virtual mode. The concept of work from home has suddenly got a major boost in the job market. The experiences of working from home have been varying for different sections of society. Through this paper, I intend to look at the gendered experiences of working from home in India during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted women who work from home along with family pressure and household chores. I aim to study the co-layers of these gendered experiences of working from home through feminist perspectives. I also intend to study, if this experience is different for men working from home, by using a combination of both primary and secondary methods. Thus, I aim to look at how difficult it has been for women to manage to switch between different gender-associated role expectations of society along with official work.


Keywords: COVID-19 Pandemic, Working from home, Job market, Gendered experiences, Family pressure, Household chores, Role expectations, Society





INTRODUCTION

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. By the end of 2019, the first few cases of COVID-19 started coming up in the city of Wuhan, China. Later on, this virus rapidly spread across the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) grouped the virus in the category of pandemic and asked all countries to strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights. This pandemic can be considered a major crisis that the world has witnessed throughout history.

By the beginning of 2020, India was also affected by the surge of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost everybody witnessed how difficult it was to survive the virus, which did not even have its vaccine available at that time to control the transmission. The only possible way through this was the imposition of a nationwide lockdown to prevent rampant transmission. However, the decision to impose a sudden lockdown was highly criticized on grounds of policymaking and implementation. Various sections of society were affected differently by the imposition of lockdown. Certain people fell prey to vulnerability with the overlapping effects of the class, caste, and gender they belonged to. Issues like inflation, rising unemployment, rising cases of gender-based violence, migrant workers, and economic slowdown, were a few of the major problems which arose in the due course of the pandemic.

With the precondition of these vulnerabilities, work from home was found to be a possible alternative for the continuation of proceedings by schools, colleges and other private/public institutions. “Work from home” (WFH) finds mention in the draft model standing orders for the service sector, released by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment. Section 10 of this draft states, “subject to conditions of appointment or agreement between employers and workers, the employer may allow a worker to work from home for such periods or periods as may be determined by the employer.” (The regulatory myopia of work from home, EPW 2021). This mode of working brings about a major question of access to resources and only includes those workers who have means of the internet along with tech equipment like smartphones and laptops. In this manner, Covid-19 has transformed not just our homes but their meaning and purpose too.



RESEARCH PROBLEM

Through this paper, I intend to look at the gendered experiences of working from home in India during the COVID-19 pandemic and how difficult it has been for women due to family pressure and household chores in Indian middle-class families. With the existing patriarchal setup of domestic space and its beliefs as well as practices, what are the major concerns for women doing work from home in India? How difficult was it for these employed women to manage the gender associated roles working from home? I also try to gauge if this experience is different for men. Further, I argue that the type of family a person resides with affects the sharing of household chores among men and women in India. I intend to study how the meaning attached to the term “home” has changed with the concept of “Work from home.” What was the domain of home before COVID-19, compared to the domain of home now? What are the changes brought about by the pandemic and its fusion with working from home? I try to look at various kinds of burdens created by this fusion and understand the participation of men towards this burden at home. As there was a complete lockdown, domestic help was also restricted, this created a new division of labour at home along with the coming up of new practices. I also aim to study how the new division of labour and new practices are perceived by both men and women. What are the issues relating to unemployment (if any brought by COVID-19 pandemic and additional burden caused by working from home)? These are the major problems addressed by this research.


LITERATURE REVIEW

Among the existing literature, Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India, by Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum, presents a good account of understanding the culture of servitude in Kolkata, India, and traces the constitution and reproduction of the employing middle classes in dialectic relation to the serving class. They have also pointed to the home as a site infused with class relations, arguing that classes come into being not only through relations of consumption and production outside the household but critically through quotidian labour and practices within the home. In this book, the writers have also examined how relations of domination/subordination, dependency, and inequality are normalized through the practices of everyday life.

There are several debates and discussions over who is included in the category of middle-class, a few of which are mentioned by G. De Neve, Being Middle-class in India: Keeping it to the family. In this work, the author seeks to demonstrate how a newly formed group of wealthy industrialists in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu share a “middle-class culture,” even though, according to socio-economic definitions, they may not even be classified as “middle-class.” The author also explores the patriarchal mindset where sons are treated with modern ideas of freedom and independence while the question of honour is attached to the daughters and their development in the domain of the family and household.

The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, by Arlie Hochschild, portrayed the double burden experienced by employed mothers in the 20th century. She interviewed 50 couples intensively and derived three constructs regarding marital roles associated with women: transitional, traditional, and egalitarian. The traditional woman “wants to identify with her activities at home (as a wife, a mother, a neighbourhood mom).” The egalitarian female partner “wants to identify with the same spheres her husband does, and to have an equal amount of power in the marriage.” The transitional woman falls in between, blending the traditional and egalitarian ideologies.

In The Sociology of Housework, Ann Oakley interviewed 40 urban housewives of London and wrote extensively about their experiences of work. She points out the dissatisfaction of these women for the work they do. Oakley says, “Housewife’s autonomy [personal freedom] is more theoretical than real. Being ‘your boss’ imposes the obligation to see that the housework gets done. The responsibility for housework is the wife’s alone and the failure to do it may have serious consequences…the wrath of husbands and the ill-health of children.” (Ann Oakley, 1974). She also highlights the relationship between housework and power, where the autonomy within the home resides with these women, but the real powers are in the hands of men.

Doing Home: Patriarchy, Caring, and Space, by Sophie Bowlby, Susan Gregory, and Linda McKieserves is a good source of knowledge for a good understanding of the domain of home and what meanings are attached to it. They look at how “power and patriarchy,” “household and caring,” and “space and boundaries,” act as overlapping themes to the domain of the home.

Ashwini Deshpande, in her article What does Work-from-home mean for women? talks about the gendered experiences of working from home and its implications in comparison to those for men and their experiences.

Rukmini Sen writes in her article for the Hindustan Times, Changing nature of urban homes and women’s lives about how the urban homes and their nature has changed with the outbreak of the pandemic and how it brought significant changes in women’s lives. In another article for the Economic and Political weekly (Engage 2020), she writes about the increasing cases of domestic violence against women during the pandemic. These are a few of the existing literature works and in this paper, I shall also try to fill the literature gap by taking the pandemic into account in the pre-existing research.


REPORTS PRESENTED BY VARIOUS NEWSPAPERS OVER THE GENDERED EXPERIENCES OF WORK FROM HOME.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, the question of gendered implications was taken up by various study groups worldwide. One such study was conducted by BBC on How COVID-19 is changing women’s lives? where they mentioned surveys by “researchers from the Boston Consulting Group, which surveyed more than 3,000 people in the US and Europe, found that working women currently spend an average of 15 hours a week more than men on unpaid domestic labour. In Australia, provisional results of a survey by the University of Melbourne suggest that in households with children, parents are putting in an extra six hours a day of care and supervision, with women taking on more than two-thirds of the extra time.” A recent United Nations study even warned that the pandemic could dilute decades of advancement on gender equality. (BBC, 2020)

News European Parliament states the condition of women in Europe during the COVID-19 outbreak. It mentioned, “About 50 women lose their lives to domestic violence every week in the EU and this has increased during the lockdown. The restrictions have also made it harder for victims to get help. Simultaneously, greater internet use during the pandemic has increased online gender-based violence and the online sexual abuse of children and especially girls. Some EU countries set additional measures to counter gender-based violence during the pandemic. (News European Parliament, 2021)

In an article of The Hindu, by Antonio Guterres, he says, “COVID-19 poses a threat to women’s livelihoods and increases their burden of work at home.” He further adds, “this pandemic is not only challenging global health systems but our commitment to equality and human dignity. With women’s interests and rights front and centre, we can get through this pandemic faster, and build more equal and resilient communities and societies that benefit everyone.” (Guterres, 2020)

The Times of India, during the initial phase of lockdown reported a news statement by Women and Child Development minister Smirti Irani, said that the “work from home” regimen, forced by the COVID-19 triggered lockdown will lead to a change of mindset with technology acting as a leveller to reduce gender bias. (TOI, 2020)

Later, a columnist in Times of India named Amulya Gopalakrishnan wrote, “In India, autonomy for middle-class women has been won on the back of labour by other women, domestic workers, as our needs meet their economic necessities. It wasn’t men who picked up the slack when we went to work. Sociologists speak of the double burden of formal employment and housework, the ‘second shift’ of chores, child and elder-care that women do. Well, India has the biggest gender gap in unpaid work, anywhere in the world for which data is available. Indian men spend an average of 52 minutes a day on housework, compared to nearly six hours by women.” (TOI, 2020)

Indian Express mentions a survey in an article Work from home has increased women’s burden, it isn’t safer than office either, conducted across states and cities by Upceed Consulting Services (UCS), a Bengaluru-based company, has found that nearly 70% of the employees are still working from home. While doing so, the work often extended beyond regular office timings, not to mention the long work calls. About 95% of people said they worked on weekends as well. The survey found such a trend to be a burden for many employees, especially women, as they continued to bear caregiving responsibilities besides their professional commitments.


METHODOLOGY

I aimed to study the layers of the gendered experiences of working from home in India through a feminist perspective. I applied a combination of primary and secondary research methods for the study. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, I chose to take telephonic interviews of 20 people (10 males and 10 females) to gain an in-depth understanding of their situation, concerns, and issues, related to lockdowns and working from home. These people varied from each other in terms of occupation, places of work, and incomes. They were grouped into the category of middle-class based on their access to resources that created a favourable condition for them to work from home. The Snowball sampling method was also applied to get in touch with a larger set of respondents which involved contacting a network of people by a reference from another set of people. I also referred to existing materials and prior work done by scholars, such as Arlie Hochschild, Ann Oakley, Rukmini Sen, Raka Ray, G.D. Neve, for a better grasp of the patriarchal setup of society in general and gendered issues associated with the Indian middle class in particular. I tried to relate these scholarly works with the data I collected, enabling its analysis and reaching a conclusion.


FIELDWORK

The major source of my fieldwork was the telephonic interviews primarily in Hindi and, in some cases, English. Each interview lasted for around 15–20 minutes. I interviewed a total of 20 people—10 men and 10 women—about the pandemic, lockdown, working from home, problems faced during COVID, changes brought by COVID to the domestic space of a home, a new division of labour, what is the additional burden created by lockdown and how did they survive through this. Among the participants, six couples were married and all six men were employed, whereas among women one was a homemaker, three were employed and two left their jobs during the lockdown. Among the remaining eight people, four were unmarried men, one unmarried woman, and three married women. All eight people are employed in various public or private institutions as engineers, sales managers, illustrators, graphic designers, school teachers, professors and other employees etc. 18 out of 20 people are from the 25–35 age group and two from the 35–45 age group. All participants had varying experiences of working from home and provided new insights for the research.

Aakash(aged 30) who works with a corporate firm in Gurugram, Haryana said that “it was very difficult to survive the pandemic and especially in the case when diagnosed with the virus.” He shared that “working from home is not very productive, especially in the case of sales.” He was also worried about the increased working hours and ill effects of online equipment.

Whereas his spouse, Tripti (aged 29), who is a government employee in Delhi said, “Pandemic was hard to survive and affected my mental health a lot, for a social person like me it was very difficult to manage to be around only one person.” She also shared that the major part of household work was done by her because her husband was busy with office and meetings while her office remained closed. The only contribution by her husband was making tea, coffee and on rare occasions preparing dinner.

Pallavi (aged 26), who works as an illustrator in Pune said, “Working from home is very boring and sometimes it becomes difficult to work alone without any motivation and colleagues.”

Another participant, Usha (aged 37) who works as a professor in Ranchi, Jharkhand, said, “work from home was difficult to manage and made me overburdened with college as well as household work.” She also shared that the majority of household chores were taken up by her and not her husband.

Naman Arora (aged 28), who lives with his family in Panipat said that “home is not a professional place to work in and working hours doesn't matter in online mode.” He also shared that home has changed its meaning with the introduction of the online mode. He says “Home has now become a school, college, office, restaurant and even theatre.”

Another couple, Kumar and Pooja (aged 28 each) who work in a Gurugram based company, shared that their experiences of COVID-19 were averagely good. They were able to manage the increased burden of the household by equally sharing the workload. However, both of them were annoyed with the increased working hours at the office.

A married couple working in Bengaluru, Rahul and Neeti (aged 32 and 27, respectively), came back to their hometown during the lockdown and continued with the office work from home. Initially employed, Neeti quit her job later because of the burden of managing the house and living up to the “ideal housewife” model expected in a patriarchal structure—with the husband working and the wife caring for the house and parents. She also shared that “he is reluctant to help with the housework in front of parents in fear of getting taunted.” She says the situation was not the same in Bengaluru, where they both earned and managed the household together. However, during the lockdown with restrictions on domestic help and increased housework, it was difficult to manage. The husband said that “the work has increased at the office and there is a fear of losing jobs keeping in mind the COVID-recession.”

A similar response came from another couple, Khushi and Ashish (aged 29 and 31, respectively) who worked in Mumbai. They came back to Jamshedpur, their hometown, where Khushboo found it difficult to manage a child, office, in-laws, and household work, leading her to leave her job. She said, “I will plan to join once everything gets normal and when I will go back to Mumbai.” She shared that the constant pressure of being perfect at everything was stressful and after leaving the job she could save time, which she invested in her two-year-old child or housework. Conversely, her husband said, “everything is smooth and easy at home. I don’t have to rush around the city, I’m finding a home as a comfortable space with parents, wife and kids around.”

Nikita Manna (aged 37), who works as a primary school teacher said, “this experience is very different and new. For her handling students online is very difficult.” She does not feel satisfied with the service she is rendering to those small kids. She also shared that being stuck with family at home was difficult to manage because of the constant demands from the husband and kids that needed to be fulfilled.

Another married couple, Pradhan and Anu Singh (aged 31 and 29, respectively) working as engineers in Pune, shared their experiences. Anu was overburdened and restricted because they moved back to Patna, their hometown, during the lockdown. There, she had to wear certain types of clothes and maintain a certain image as the daughter-in-law, along with office and work. She said, “I feel sad about not being able to take out time for myself and my growth.” Her husband sometimes shares the childcare duties, however, the major housework falls onto her. He was stressed about increased work at the office, the fear of losing his job, or his salary being reduced. He also shared, “the situation has affected my mental health and not only mine but of my colleagues too, including my wife.”

Another participant, Anand (aged 27) who lives alone in Noida for his job said, “it was very difficult for me to manage everything since I did not know how to cook and was very much dependent over maid but though it was tiresome, lockdown helped me with skill development and I’m happy that I learnt new things.”

Arnav and Kundan (aged 29 and 27, respectively), two friends working in the Bhilai Steel plant, Chhattisgarh shared that they enjoyed being at home and spending time with family, which was very rare before lockdown. They said that their home is a comfortable space and during COVID, the home was the safest place. On their contribution to household work, they responded that they helped in a few things, such as grocery shopping, but major household chores were carried out by their mothers, sisters, or wives.

One respondent from Jharkhand, Himanshu (aged 26), said, “COVID was hard since the condition was very critical and I was overburdened with the duty since the office was part of the necessary service.” He said it was no longer a 9–5 job and he had to work whenever asked. Simultaneously, at home, there was a constant fear of infecting other members with COVID as he had to go out. Thus, it was a critical time to survive.

Kireeti and Mausami (aged 25 and 26, respectively), two sisters who were teaching in a private school said, “it was very difficult [on their part] to be best at everything. Home and job both needed equal energy and it was not easy to do everything.” They also said that all their siblings were working from home, therefore, their home looked like an office during day time. They said “work from home seems very easy and comfortable to work but it is not that smooth. During physical mode, you only have to play one role at once but virtually too many at once.”

All these responses were combined with my observations and the existing literature, for gaining a better understanding of the situation, and an analysis of the data.

ANALYSIS

From the collected data and responses, the few observations are:

  • A household burden shared by men, in almost every case, is less than that of women and is equally shared in rare cases. The existing patriarchal mindset majorly affects the division of labour in the domestic space. This can also be related to the study by Ann Oakey in The Sociology of Housework, where she says, “The responsibility for housework is the wife’s alone and the failure to do it may have serious consequences…the wrath of husbands and the ill-health of children.” (Ann Oakley, 1974).

  • Major housework by men revolved only around making tea/coffee, preparing snacks, grocery shopping, and taking care of children, while all other work was done by women. This analysis could be related to that of Doing Home: Patriarchy, Caring, and Space. The division of labour at home is largely affected by the concepts of power and patriarchy. They also discussed how the domain of household is often referred to as a place of “female.”

  • Two women had to leave their jobs due to this overburden and mismanagement, but no men had gone through the same. As highlighted by Ashwini Deshpande, “India has been witnessing a decline in labour force participation rates of women much before the pandemic. The pandemic is going to make a bad situation worse, as far as women’s work is concerned.” This seems to be true for the situation created by lockdown and COVID-19.

  • Every interviewee was worried about the increasing number of office hours and meetings. The fear of losing jobs and salary cuts was the same for both men and women. Those working from home also found the space boring and aloof because of the absence of colleagues and friends.

  • Married women felt the burden of family and gender roles more than unmarried women. Rukmini Sen writes in her article, Changing nature of urban homes and women’s lives, about how the urban homes and their nature has changed with the outbreak of pandemic and how this pandemic has brought significant changes in women’s lives. She also mentions, “Domestic spaces, in Indian cities, have been transformed in multiple ways in the last few decades. Sociological studies of the 1970s to 1990s on urbanisation, migration and nuclearization of families are a few of the transformations of that era from stay-at-home women performing all the household work to women shouldering the double burden of paid employment and housework. Over time, the changing culture of joint families into nuclear ones and the hiring of domestic helpers.” (Sen, 2020)

  • Women who returned to their hometowns during the lockdown to stay with their parents or in-laws shared that their partners were helpful before the lockdown when they lived in places of their work. The changing nature of Indian middle-class households is a historical fact that has also been explained by Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum in the Cultures of servitude where they also trace the constitution and reproduction of the employing middle classes in dialectic relation to the serving class. They have also explained how power and domination impact everyday practices.

  • Another observation from the data was that men who were staying with parents or in a joint family were rarely helpful towards the housework because of the patriarchal notions of the domestic space, where they may get taunted for helping their spouse in housework; whereas those who lived away from parents and family were quite helpful.

  • The consensus was that the meaning of the middle-class home changed during COVID-19. Before the lockdown, the home was a place to feel stress-free and relaxed with aid from the domestic help, but during the lockdown “home” converted into a school, college, office, restaurant, theatre, and even marketplace, with the feature of online shopping. This goes against what Raka Ray says is a major aspect for the continuation of the Indian middle-class households, that is, “servitude.” During the lockdown, there were restrictions on domestic help, and still, these households managed to survive, which according to Raka Ray was a necessity for the survival of middle-class households (Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India.)




CONCLUSION

Though the home is a comfortable or safe space and working from home seems very feasible, the lived experiences are different and difficult as well. The existing patriarchal setup of Indian middle-class households makes it even more difficult for employed women. Before COVID-19, the home was a relaxing and comfortable place, but during the lockdown, this changed completely. Additional burdens of family, elders, kids, and housework, have significantly affected women’s lives. Many women had to quit their jobs due to this. Increased cases of women unemployment are a few examples of how the lives of women have been affected miserably. The domain of the house includes many established norms of what is considered a man’s and a woman’s work; this also stops men from sharing the household burden. The major concerns for men and women were very different during the lockdown. While men were worried about working hours and job security, women were more invested in house care and household work. Hence, in deciding the pros and cons of working from home in India, gendered implications hold an important place.







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