Gendering the Pandemic Effect: Post-Pandemic Trends of Female Labour Force Participation

    • By,
      Harshita Sharma- Academic Associate, Kautilya

World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, concluded that it will take the world another 36 years to close the gender-based gap that exists in almost every sector, economic, political, education, and health. It will take a total of 136 years instead of 99.5 years to cover the gender gap, in the period of just 12 months of the COVID 19 pandemic, says the report. Where some countries from Western Europe proved to be the best performing countries in decreasing the gender gap in terms of political and economic empowerment of women, other countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, UAE, and countries from the North America region failed the test in an even more brutal way than before.

The countries with the highest percentage of middle-class households faced the greatest impact in terms of the increased gender gap. If we were to take the case of India, getting the rank 140 out of 156 countries has multiple dimensions to it apart from the economic dimension. Analyzing Indian Society, ‘gender’ and ‘gender gap’ is influenced by deep-rooted religious, class, caste, political, historical, and sociological reasons which makes the struggle of establishing a place, harder for one gender than the other. Still, a majority of the population refuses to recognize the women of their household as leaders. 62% of the population will say that taking care of children should be a shared responsibility, but only one-third of the population (34%), following traditional family norms, believe that primarily responsibility of child care should be of women.

India claims to value sons and daughters equally, but statistically, 96% of the population accepts that there should be at least one ‘son’ in the family and 43% of them believe that the responsibility of earning money in the family should be of men. These gendered household roles justify the data revealed about women’s labour force participation rate which was at 9.4% in the year 2021 and proved to be the lowest since 2016. The job security during lockdown was unequal; where 61% of male workers had secure jobs, only 19% of female workers had that privilege.

COVID hit hard on the upper-middle, middle, and lower-middle classes, and the population which worked in the urban areas. These were the areas where women broke the gendered norms and stepped outside to work or to get an education. Breaking the gendered norms that have been imposed for centuries and asking for financial and social independence was hanging on an extremely thin thread, which regressed during the lockdown. The percentage of employed women who lost their jobs during the pandemic had not returned to work by the end of the year 2020, gone up to 47% as against men who was only 7%.

During the lockdown, the closure of markets, offices, and educational institutions and the new digital work culture made women even more vulnerable. The lack of domestic help during lockdown increased the percentage of unpaid employment. The women not going back to work even after the lockdown not only led to the drop in labour force participation but increased the experience of extreme poverty due to their increased involvement in unpaid labour. This lack of proper income also impacted their social status, decision-making within their home, and financial independence, and affected the distribution of intra-household resources which favoured men because of generations of gender-based societal norms. One more side of the story is that for the women involved in paid employment, the burden of unpaid domestic work is so high that they end up working three times more than men.

Due to the increased unpaid domestic work that has emerged with the work-from-home culture, the participation of women in the social and political spheres has got limited, discouraging their empowerment and leisure which in turn affected the well-being of their mental and physical health. This limitation gave rise to several conflicts regarding shared household and child care responsibilities. As our society is still patriarchal in many aspects, the result of these added difficulties during the pandemic has in many cases led to physical and mental abuse of women.

Given the proper opportunity, the majority of the population believes that women can prove to be better leaders than men. This claim has proved that women handled the pandemic crisis better than men. Women-led countries have seen 1,900 fewer deaths than governments led by men. So, the pandemic showcased two different versions of gender representation. While on the one hand, the crisis made it visible that Indian society considers women as the weaker section by limiting their roles, another picture reveals that given the space and opportunity the ‘weaker section’ as perceived by society at large is more capable to fight the crisis more sustainably. The distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres becomes indistinguishable as the woman emerges as the site on which society’s crucial debates take place.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.