Women’s Claim over Professional Aspirations take a toll Amid Taxing Work from Home Culture

Women’s struggles to live up to professional commitments have become harder amid the pandemic as the boundaries between the home and the workspace disappear.

Illustration woman working from home in pandemic times

The idea of Work From Home’ collides with ‘Work For Home’ and sets up a distinct set of challenges for women already striving to excel in male dominated professional arenas. This article is an attempt to critically reflect upon the changing dynamics of work culture and its impact on careers of women professionals struggling to bring work life balance.Women’s entry and establishment into the professional arenas has had a long history of interplay of juxtaposing discourses and women’s social situatedness.
Over the years, these competing discourses have made way for struggle for women’s entry and participation into the world of professional work. Subsequently, there is a slight yet significant growth in female labour force participation into the professional fields like engineering, scientific research and management etc., which have traditionally been the male’s domain.
Trends of women’s education and their entry into male dominated professional courses and careers have produced patterns of modest resistance and negotiations.  There are numerous success stories and memoires of women in various professional fields, particularly in science and technology are available which suggest that the resistance against patriarchal structures and inherently male dominated work culture was carried out in a subtle negotiating manner which subsequently led to the gradual social transformation and presented the role models for young women aspiring to become scientists and engineers. Such narratives substantially explain the underlying resistance processes carried out by women to do away with structural barriers laid down by patriarchy in various institutions such as family, education and work place in order to make inroads and survive in the ‘once male dominant’ and ‘women unfriendly’ professional fields.  Interplay of discourses that emerged out of such resistance, led to the adoption of various public policies over the period to facilitate women’s participation in professional fields. Resultantly, women’s representation across various fields of professional education and careers has reportedly increased with more noticeable growth in the fields of medicine and scientific research. However, this transformation is yet too far to be complacent of the idea that all is well with women’s representation in various professional arenas.  According to Global Gender Gap Report 2020 by World Economic Forum, there is an increase in gender parity in the economic participation and opportunity but the developing world still lags behind in closing the gap and extending the projective time required to close this gap to up to 257 years.  The report presents global data which suggests that 36 per cent of private managerial positions and public sector official positions are acquired by women. However, these figures are representative of only a handful of countries which have achieved gender parity.

According to another estimate by recent Economic Survey Report 2020, women’s participation in labour force has reduced to 25.3 per cent in 2017-18 from 33.1 per cent in 2011-12 and that nearly 60 per cent of women opt out of work for the mammoth of unpaid household care work.  Similarly, report by Oxfam India, ‘Mind the Gap: The State of Employment in India” (2019), also indicates that in India, women spend over nine times more time on unpaid care work than men every day comprising 297 minutes as compared to 31 minutes spent by men. These numbers increase in urban areas by average 312 minutes for women per day, and 29 minutes per day for men. 

In this statistical backdrop, it seems that the current disarray of the global pandemic has brought decades of long struggles of women professionals, back to square one. Women professionals are faced with the newer set of challenges and dynamics of work cultures which have already been women unfriendly and gender biased. Now, that the emerging demands to work from home have paved its way into most professional fields, it is pertinent to understand and critically reflect whether such alternations in work dynamics is a welcome move for women professionals or not.  Women who have been resisting the power structures and made their way into the male dominated professional fields, might have to reclaim their professional as well as personal spaces both at their homes and back in their work places in the given situation.   It is time to analyse whether such work space transitions will lead to emergence of gender neutral environment at home and at work place or will it widen the gap along gender lines.  Altering work culture and work space transitions has implications for women striving to establish work life balance and resisting the power structures at their work places. Therefore, there is a need to critically relook at the pre-existing challenges for women professionals at their work front and home front. It is also equally pertinent to analyse the nuances of remote working for women professionals and its impact on their career growth and their struggle for equal spaces.  

Work from Home and Work For Home: Newer Challenges for Women Professionals

Numerous studies have argued that the very consideration of domestic household care work as the sole responsibility of women, has been the reason for women’s lower participation in the professional fields.  Women struggling to find work life balance generally end up compromising their careers and lead a household life.  Large number of potential women professionals drop out of their careers to fulfill their roles as mothers, wife and daughters. Study conducted by Ashwini Deshpande snd Naila Kabeer (2019), emphasizes the critical role of domestic chores in women’s limited participation in paid work.  Their findings explain that for the regular domestic chores, like cleaning, washing, cooking and caring of kids and elderly in the family, women have been exclusively responsible, which results in their limited participation in the world of paid work.  There has been an increasing focus in both the academic as well as political discourses on the question of how to excel in work professionally while also meeting out the life and family commitments at the same time effectively.  Following the constant demands and assertions for more inclusive and encouraging work cultures, many organizations have started adopting flexible work policies.  Work from Home and flexible time schedules are some of the recent developments in this direction to ensure better work life balance and thereby improving work efficiency.  Work from Home has been in practice since ages as for those who run their businesses or any kind of economic activities from homes or who may be considered as self employed.  But for the professionals working in organizations, corporate and government offices, in media houses and educational institutions, ‘Work from Home’ is a recent development. For them ‘Work from Home’ means doing the same work that they would do in their workplaces during the stipulated period of time and for which they would be paid.  There is however, no clear data available on the number of professionals working from home.  Also that, Work from Home is not a regular practice, and is adopted differentially across organizations.  The long term impact of Working from Home on the efficiency of work and stress level of the workers is also yet to be ascertained.   Implications of this practice may also vary according to gender and the nature of work.  Particularly for women professionals who have already been striving to negotiate their roles and to claim equal spaces in workplaces, such practices may prove crucial in career advancement.  ‘Women in the Workplace 2019’ study for example finds out that although flexibility in work schedules and permission to work from home have been recognized as beneficial by the employees to manage work and home better but one among four women has also reported fear of loss of recognition and financial lag because of remote working or simply absence from workplace (Mckinsey & Company 2019).  Therefore, changing work regimes and more particularly the adoption of Work from Home as the new normal may pose a fresh set of challenges for women working in professional fields. 

Now the question is, even if the policy of Work from Home is extensively adopted by the organizations, are the homes ready for such a transformation?  Particularly, the women workers who have been away from home to carry out their work, have been managing housework according to their work and commuting schedules.  But now, the time boundaries for housework, personal work and professional work have blurred critically.  In a very recent UN document on ‘Impact of Covid 19 on Women’ (2020), it has been recognized that women have always been doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men.  Amid the pandemic when lockdown restrictions have been conceived by many countries, this unpaid care work has increased exponentially.  The child care work which was earlier divided for schools, has increased due to complete closure of schools.  ‘Homeschooling’ has also emerged as a new task adding more pressure on the existing childcare responsibilities.  The recent studies conducted to assess the impact of lockdown on gender equality at home have concluded that during the pandemic, household domestic work has not been more equitably divided among partners than the pre lockdown period.  Moreover, eighty per cent of the women who were surveyed, reported to spend more time in homeschooling their children than their husbands (Miller 2020).  Women, who have started to carry out their professional activities from home, face the challenge of establishing their work station or a secluded work space within the home which is supposedly the space for all family members to share.   

According to Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor of management at Purdue University in United States, women who work from home are likely to bear ‘career penalties’ (2020).  However, few but there are studies that have assessed the impact of working from home on the professional productivity of women scientists and academics.  A study published in ‘nature’ looks for the trends of publication by female academics during the period of lockdown.  Through the survey of preprint servers, the study concludes that the women’s publishing rate across various disciplines has fallen as compared to their male counterparts (Viglione 2020).  Another survey conducted by Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World on women scientists about the impact of Covid led restrictions on the productivity of their work.  The study finds out that over 67 per cent of the respondents reported to have a negative impact on their work in terms of inability to perform experiments and inability to collaborate with fellow scientists for advancement of their work.  About 20 per cent of the respondents also described their inability to submit papers for publications (OWSD 2020).  A survey conducted by Upceed Consulting Services (UCS), a Bengaluru-based company, has found that nearly 70 per cent of the employees are working from home. And while doing so, the work often extended beyond regular office timings.  95 per cent of people said they worked on weekends as well. The survey finds that Work from Home has proved to be adding more burden on women employees as they continue to perform their care giving roles alongside fulfilling their professional commitment (Chaudhary 2020).

What better can be than ‘Remote Working’ for a woman professional who has no escape from traditional responsibilities of child care and home management and who wants to excel in her professional endeavors at the same time.  But, the early responses from the women working remotely suggest that, neither the world of work nor the patrifocal family structures have become any better to secure equal spaces and fair distribution of work for them.  Work from Home may prove to be an opportunity to make or break a career for many women professionals. For example, women who are away from their workplaces might lose the track of informal networking which they require to establish connections to subsequently gain career advancements and their absenteeism from the workplace may also result in loss of recognition and rewards for their work (Ibarra et al. 2020). Dynamics of work culture, which have traditionally been unwelcoming for women, may alter for the worst amid the present scenario towards entrenching the gender divide both at workplaces and within homes.  

Vijayata Pervez is Assistant Professor at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University College of Teacher Education, Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh.