Covid-19: A dip in women in the workforce is likely

Lalita Panicker
The central and state governments and the private sector must come up with innovative solutions to make women a real part of the next phase of the growth story.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the presence of women in the job market. A McKinsey Global Institute report suggests that women’s presence in the workforce in India, which is just about 20%, has reduced further by about 17-23% after the virus struck.

This is due to a range of reasons. Women are usually employed in the unorganised sector, which has been hardest hit by the pandemic. With no job security and no legal infrastructure backing them, they are the easiest to lay off. Even as the Union government makes efforts to kick start the manufacturing sector, it is unlikely that this will work out well for women who were underrepresented in this sector. In a patriarchal society such as India, the job market is tilted in favour of men. Women are either under-qualified or not allowed to join the workforce; this will only get reinforced now as the coronavirus pandemic increases the pressure on them in the form of being primary caregivers to the sick, the elderly and children.

With an overstretched health system encouraging home isolation, women will face a heavier burden of not just running the household but also taking care of the family. In an ideal world, the burden should be shared by both men and women, but today the priority is for the man to rejoin the labour force. In short, in an economic downturn, women’s employment is not a priority.

Women are often seen as less productive, even in normal times, and not as the main breadwinners in a family. Their marginalisation will grow in the months, perhaps even years to come, depending on the course the pandemic takes. Even if women were to take up employment due to economic distress, chances are that they will have to accept lesser wages than men and agree to working without any job security. As the Indian economy opens up, it is clear that more men will migrate to cities leaving behind their families.

Women will then be left to tend the family, and in many cases, the family’s agricultural fields. Here, a concerted effort should be made to give them better tools to deal with agriculture in the form of easy to access loans and technology. Whether in care-giving or agriculture or any other sector, women’s skills should be upgraded to afford them economic independence.

For educated and skilled women, there could be some benefits such as flexible hours and work from home options. But the implications of this on their career are still not clear. In addition, comes the burden of housework and isolation, which adds to stress levels and anxiety in an uncertain world.

In a situation where there is less to go around, women’s health, education and food security may get more compromised. This is the time to bring about a greater gender focus in welfare schemes.

Women have a relatively greater level-playing field as far as wages go in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. A concerted effort should be made to draw more women into the scheme. Local governments can ensure that data is collected on girls’ attendance in schools. This will ensure that when the pandemic is over, the right interventions can be made to improve their education levels.

At the senior levels, this will help ensure that they don’t go out unprepared into a shrunken job market. This is the time for gender-focused interventions. Otherwise, this will be a huge gap in the post-pandemic challenge to reintegrate women into the job market.

The central and state governments and the private sector must come up with innovative solutions to make women a real part of the next phase of the growth story.

Courtesy HindustanTimes

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