Gender and the Home Office

Gender and the Home Office

Our recent quarantine experience has brought much needed respect for housework and care-giving, which have historically disproportionately fallen on women. Many believe that  Covid-19 will therefore have a positive impact on gender equality, boosting flexi-working opportunities for women in the workplace. The hope is also that this unprecedented experience will push men to participate more actively in home and care responsibilities and show greater acceptance of flexible work schedules for all.

Women interviewed talked about work-home balance as the central issue along with productivity

Helen Lewis, in her piece in the Atlantic, argues that it will be the opposite. She says that the additional burden on the family currently experienced will fall largely on women, impinging their ability to be as effective working at home as their partners thus skewing the existing imbalance between the genders even further. We interviewed a group of leaders from different industries and geographies (~50) to hear their perspectives on this, and by and large, found support for Lewis’s point of view.

For men, the main concerns during lockdown were around the pace of work getting slower, technology issues and digital literacy of people they work with, lack of support structures on the work front, learning new skills, and helping others/society at a time of distress. There were a few who mentioned housework and child-care. For example, Rajendra Phatarpekar felt he had learnt a lot working from home about routine responsibilities which are not typically shared by office-goers (in many households, men).

For a majority of male leaders, home-care was not front and centre like it was for women, and often got grouped with ‘distractions’

Similarly several men spoke of participating in housework and mentioned activities like cooking as part of their experience. But interestingly, for a majority of male leaders, home-care was not front and centre like it was for women, and often got grouped with ‘distractions’. In fact, a few men reported an increase in well-being due to reduced travel, home-cooked food, and the chance to pursue their hobbies.  

The women’s perspective was quite different. Many miss the structure and routine that ‘going to work’ enables. Shilpa Bhandarkar, Global Head of Innovation, Linklaters- London says that in fact work-from-home makes it harder to keep boundaries between work and home and worries that without active management and leadership, [people/working mothers] will burnout. A Mumbai-based senior woman executive in a global bank says “People at the office assume one’s free to work at any time during the day, which makes scheduling daily tasks and separating ‘work’ from ‘home’ difficult”. Deepshikha Jakate, senior leader in an international pharma-company, based in Mumbai says that “you lose the sanctity of home and can’t equate it anymore to a leisure place”. Most of the women interviewed talked about work-home balance as the central issue along with productivity. One or two women have actually considered taking a step back in their careers if this format of working is to continue because it seems incredibly difficult in this moment to ‘have it all’.

Definitions of traditional gender roles need to continue to be pushed.

Maya John of Daily Hunt, Bangalore talks about how she had to find deliberate ways to institute ‘work time’ from ‘home time’ – how she dresses, where she sits to formally delineate ‘work’. Equally, she has invested in building a capable second line at work that takes some of the pressure off. And where this kind of delineation is possible, it seems to protect well-being. But if two or more people were jostling for work space at home, the men often took the prime spots without discussion. And the demands for organising and planning are skewed against women. Stuti Ramachandra, Executive Producer at Excel Entertainment says I do have to organise my time more as there’s all the house work and cooking but that’s just time management, which I am thankfully good at.”

Covid-19 has brought into focus that definitions of traditional gender roles need to continue to be pushed. While plenty of women have successfully entered and excelled in the world of work, it appears that not many men have entered the world of home as much, even under current circumstances. These differences in assumed responsibility need to be addressed if flexible working arrangements are going to be a proffered solution to enabling women to build careers.

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