Can Work-From-Home Bring More Gender Parity In Employment?

Many employers, especially more agile and adaptive companies, have accepted the remote work or hybrid work model

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The immediate effect of pandemic-induced lockdowns was women downshifting their careers or quitting altogether because of burnout. Not having house helps and schools shutting down led to additional domestic responsibilities for women. According to a McKinsey & Company report, one-in-four women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one-in-five men a few months into the pandemic. However, today, when we look back at the last two years, the pandemic seems to have brought in more acceptance towards work from home (WFH) and thereby more opportunities for women.

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"As the pandemic progressed, we moved towards a more positive outlook about WFH. This trend was visible as the evolving work situation allowed more flexible working hours with remote working, thereby encouraging more women to enter the workforce or manage their workload better. This is in spite of schools and childcare facilities being closed during the lockdown," said Vineeta Singh, co-founder and CEO, SUGAR Cosmetics.

A few months after the first lockdown, we also saw both men and women sharing household chores while also working from their residence. "In the short term, WFH was a disaster for women as all physical boundaries between work and home suddenly got eradicated. Working mothers were fully burnt out. But JobsForHer platform has recorded a rise in the number of women returnee registrations as a paradigm shift is happening in the company policies. Organizations now not only have policies in place to bring women back to work but they are talking the walk too. There is a change in the mindset towards flexible work arrangements," said Neha Bagaria, founder and CEO, JobsForHer.

The last two years also paved way for testing the effectiveness of WFH. Today, 69 per cent of companies claim they have started flexible work hours during the pandemic, says JobsForHer survey. "What we all learned in these two years is that it was possible to deliver high-quality output while working remotely. People have also realized that a majority of work-related travel could get reduced in favor of virtual meetings. Teams have also found and built their rhythms working remotely. We are also seeing more organizations exploring hybrid work going forward, even post the pandemic," said Shruti Srivastava, principal, Avaana Capital.

The pandemic has even forced traditional workplaces to switch to a WFH model. But, can this new acceptance to WFH bring more women into the workforce going ahead?

WFH and Gender Parity

In the past few decades, many women have, undoubtedly, managed to break glass ceilings and make a name for themselves. Chanda Kochhar, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Naina Lal Kidwai, Falguni Nayar, the list is endless. We also have many women in corporate leadership roles and many others running successful startups today. However, it is certainly still a long way to go.

From quitting or taking a break to take care of children or aging parents to having no access to quality education, the issues are endless. According to LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021, as many as 85 per cent of women missed out on a raise, promotion or work offer because of their gender in India. WFH is a step in the direction of bringing equality in employment. According to the LinkedIn report, telecommuting or WFH was appreciated by women surveyed during the pandemic.

Good Glamm Group, which has adapted to a hybrid working model where both women and men employees are free to work from home and only required to come to the office when necessary, believes that the pandemic has removed biases from the WFH concept, which was earlier considered by some as "unproductive' or relegated to those who cannot take up full-time jobs. "Working women professionals in high-order skill jobs are unable to take up full-time office-based jobs for reasons such as childcare. The pandemic has proved that the concept of work from anywhere is possible and that work (to an extent) can be managed remotely," said Priyanka Gill, co-founder, Good Glamm Group.

I do see working remotely or hybrid working becoming a long-term option especially for mothers as it helps them be more present for their children while still managing their careers, she added.

In the long-term, remote and hybrid work have the potential to bring more gender parity in employment, believe the women leaders we spoke with. "It enables more flexibility in managing chores and childcare. What it also enables is easier sharing of a load of domestic responsibilities between partners. It is extremely important to understand that one cannot have gender parity in employment without gender parity in households," said Srivastava.

WFH has surely given women a lot of liberty to choose their schedule and manage work around it. "I hope this helps reduce the gap. But I feel that this has definitely helped us take steps in the direction of gender parity. companies have given work from home forever to their employees, there are others who have given flexi-work days," said Ghazal Alagh, co-founder and chief innovation officer, Mamaearth.

Women leaders feel that the trend is here to stay. "Many Indian women are severely limited in their ability to seek work outside the home because of societal stigma about the domestic responsibilities of mothers and wives. This shift can definitely open doors for them and allow them to take up professional roles while managing their personal responsibilities," said Hardika Shah, founder and CEO, Kinara Capital.

The Cons Of WFH for Women

Even though more professional opportunities will open up for women if they choose to work from home, this may not always necessarily translate into career advancement, at least for now. "The social element of getting to know one another in person forms a camaraderie that can't be replicated with work from home. In many cases, women are burdened with household and work duties so without the right checks and balances in place, women who work remotely can also be overlooked for opportunities and acknowledgment at work, in favour of colleagues who show up in person," said Shah.

She also believes that it also depends entirely on the organization, its priorities, and operational nuances. "There are certain roles like customer-facing field roles and administrative responsibilities, which are difficult, if not impossible to manage entirely from home. For such roles, organizations are bound to approach professionals who can be present in person." Women may still miss out on such opportunities in such fields.

Further, when it comes to roles that can be serviced equally well in a WFH set-up, it comes down to a matter of adaptability and mindset. "Some companies might be keener than others to maintain the status quo and ask all employees to return to the office, now that the pandemic is mostly behind us," she said. Moreover, for women too, WFH could mean missing out on water-cooler conversations, having more discipline, ensuring work-life balance, among others.

Women in Smaller Towns

The pandemic has opened doors for women in Tier II and Tier III cities to work remotely. "Women now have the opportunity to work at organizations or study in institutions that are not in their hometown. This has helped in opening up many career opportunities for women and has enabled them to multitask as they get to function from home," said Gill.

The pandemic has fast-tracked the digital transformation that was already underway. Today, more women across geographies and social backgrounds have access to education, information and employment opportunities. "The fast-tracked tech transformation has put smartphones and computers in women's hands, ensuring that they can access education and employment opportunities without having to step out of the home. Since going out to work to go to school often becomes a sticking point for young women in India, especially in peri-urban and rural areas, this is certainly a boon for them. While the gender divide still looms large over the smaller victories, accessibility is the first step towards leveling the playing field for women in villages and smaller cities in the long run," said Shah.

Digital access for women in smaller towns has started to level the playing field. However, social conditioning still prioritizes spending on digital access for men, which needs to be solved. And, for women in urban India, WFH is surely one step towards having equal opportunities, though there are still many things that need to be addressed and resolved.