Where Does the Women Workforce Stand One Year After COVID-19 Struck

The outbreak of the pandemic last year had dire consequences for the informal workforce across the board, but data and research show that recovery has not been gender-neutral

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For Ruby Gaffar Khan, little has improved since March 25, 2020, the day she was forced out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic-led lockdown. "I haven't got back even half of the work I did before COVID-19 happened," said Delhi-based Khan, who works as a household cook.


"People are not only cautious of the virus, with women working out of their homes, they don't feel the need for our services as much as they did before," said Khan.

In another case, Neelam (who uses only her first name), 34, had to shelve her plans of returning to Pune after Holi in search of work after the news of a second wave and possible lockdown surfaced. Neelam, who worked as a domestic help, along with her children had gone back to her village in Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh) from Pune in August after failing to find work even after lockdown restrictions were lifted. "We would have at least not starved in the village," she said.

Countless women like Khan and Neelam continue to reel under the economic fallout of COVID-19. The outbreak of the pandemic last year had dire consequences for the informal workforce across the board, but data corroborates Entrepreneur India's anecdotal research that recovery has not been gender-neutral.

The Consumer Pyramids Household Survey released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that about 78 per cent of the men who lost their jobs during the lockdown in March returned to work by August. In comparison, for the same time period, only 34 per cent of women workers returned to work. These findings are largely for the workforce in the informal sector.

"In February 2021, the urban female employment rate touched 5.4 per cent. There is almost no recovery from the pandemic-hit low of 5 per cent in April 2020," stated Mahesh Vyas, MD and CEO, CMIE in an article on the centre's website.

In urban areas, a majority of women micro-entrepreneurs are engaged in the beauty and fashion industry while others are employed as domestic workers and in customer service roles. All of the three sectors have been a major casualty of the economic fallout of the pandemic. We spoke to several women and men workers employed as beauticians in salon and in call centres and customer-facing roles in the retail industry to find that the crisis has hit women harder.

"I was asked to return to work in September on the condition of half the original payment and longer work hours," said a 32-year-old Delhi-based beautician who worked at a popular chain of salons in South Extension market. "I refused as my husband too is working overtime so it made more sense for me to stay at home to manage children," she said, on condition of anonymity.

Moreover, research shows that among the workers who returned to work in the aftermath of COVID-19, a large share of men either moved to self-employment or took up jobs in another industry, which was not the case with women. "During such a shock, women are forced to exit the workforce whereas men negotiate across industries and employment arrangements," stated a research paper titled Down and Out? The Gendered Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on India's Labour Market, published on Centre for Sustainable Employment Working Papers.

"This suggests that typical fall-back options for employment do not exist for women," it added. Take the case of Neelam's husband who worked as a gardener pre-Covid and is currently working at a construction site as a daily wage labor.

The above research is for the women workforce in the informal economy, but the picture is no different for the formal economy either.

Women in the Formal Economy Dropping Out Due to WFH Burnout

Data shows more women in the formal economy are dropping out of the workforce as a result of the burnout caused by work from home.

"The struggle faced by working mothers got real during the pandemic with balancing between working for home and work from home," said Neha Bagaria, founder and CEO, JobsForHer, a career platform for women. This has prompted many working mothers to drop out of their full-time jobs to stop the grilling demands of work and personal commitments."

LinkedIn's Workforce Confidence Index-Wave 10 released in September last year showed a similar trend. Every one in three working mothers reported providing childcare full-time, compared with nearly one in five working fathers. "More than 46 per cent of working mothers report working till late to make up for work, and 42 per cent are unable to focus on work with their children at home," the report stated.