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Coronavirus Crisis: Women Are Vanishing From The Workforce En Masse

·4 min read
A majority of Indian women are employed in the unorganized sector which has been hit harder by the pandemic.
A majority of Indian women are employed in the unorganized sector which has been hit harder by the pandemic.

With a passion for teaching, Naina* (name changed to protect privacy) joined an edtech company in July 2019. The work usually involved going to private schools and when rumours of a lockdown started gaining steam, the 26-year-old trainee teacher was quite naturally nervous about her livelihood.

“I was working till the last day of lockdown,” she says, who received the news of the termination of her contract in April. The company tried to justify the cut saying that they were unable to handle the cost of employing teachers. “It took a toll on me as I was broke, unemployed and borrowing to survive,” Naina says, adding that even a year after the pandemic, she is still on the hunt for employment. With her mother as the primary breadwinner of the household, Naina now feels anxious and uneasy for being unable to help her.

Naina is one of the millions of Indians whose ties to the workforce have been weakened by the pandemic. The impact of the catastrophic employment crisis has not been equal across genders.

While already confronting painful choices in the massive wage gap, Indian women have now also been disproportionately affected by layoffs across sectors due to the pandemic, revealed a report by Azim Premji University.

The study revealed that only 19% of women remained employed and 47% suffered a permanent job loss during the lockdown, not returning to work even by the end of 2020. This stands in stark contrast to the statistic showing that 61% of working men remained employed and only 7% lost employment and did not return to work. Women leaving the labor market or being forced out of it can lead to long-term widening of existing gender gaps, the study noted.

Well, can unemployment statistics really capture the full extent of what women have lost?

Gender lens: Exacerbating existing inequalities

Deepanshu Mohan, Assistant Professor of Economics at OP Jindal University told MAKERS that a majority of Indian women employed in the unorganized sector has been hit harder by the pandemic. “When there is localised shutdown, those who work in the unorganized sector take a beating,” he says. He says that while India may have started off on the path to economic recovery after the first wave, it is the informal sector once again that is feeling the burn with this current wave.

To get a more accurate understanding of the picture, he also feels that there needs to be better classification of work as many tasks undertaken by women are seen as unpaid work. “In the agriculture sector for example, families are involved in the process of farming. Most of the work that is undertaken by women in the family isn’t counted as paid work, it’s seen as unpaid work that is put as part of ‘family labour’,” he says. And he questions how much of the financial output ends up in the pockets of women as opposed to the men of the household.

Mohan also points out that ownership of assets and generational wealth being limited among women is a pan-South Asia problem. Being booted out of the workforce due to the pandemic further takes away from women’s ability to create financial security for herself.

From the perspective of the organized sector, a gap of even a few months between jobs on a resume is questioned by potential employers. Many companies also offer salaries based on the previous salary of the employee. But for a woman who is currently out of job and has missed the opportunity to grow in that role due to layoffs, negotiating for better pay in these cases becomes all the more difficult for her.

Read more: Gender Disparity: How COVID-19 Threatens Girls’ Education And Their Future

For many women, especially in a patriarchal society like India, employment also offers them security as well as the financial means to leave in case of unfortunate circumstances. For many young women, having a job acts as a way to put off marriage for a few more years. Now with their security blanket ripped out from under them, they are left to fend off their families and societal pressures. “My age, marriage pressure and no financial stability has made me more worried than ever,” says Naina.

Mohan comments that it is also necessary to also look at this data from an intersectional lens. He remarks that women who may be at the juxtaposition of marginalized identities like caste, disabilities could also be more negatively impacted.

“We don’t even have data to understand how the pandemic has affected employment among other marginalized genders,” Mohan adds, hoping that more research is conducted to delve deeper into how the pandemic has impacted the LGBTQ+ community as well.

(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)

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