Flexible working models must be implemented to catalyse ‘new normal’ for women at workplace, say experts

According to an analysis by UN Women, 740 million women work in the informal economy and their income fell by 60 per cent in the first month of the pandemic

Representational image. Reuters

New Delhi: Warning that COVID-19 outbreak is pushing women further into poverty and ill-health, experts have urged employers to take lessons from the pandemic and use them to catalyse a ‘new normal’ for women in employment by implementing flexible working models and hybrid systems.

According to an analysis by UN Women, 740 million women work in the informal economy and their income fell by 60 per cent in the first month of the pandemic.

On an average day, women globally spend about three times as many hours (4.2 hours) on unpaid domestic and care work as compared to men (1.7 hours) and this “unpaid, unacknowledged and unequal” distribution of domestic responsibilities prevents women from participating in the labor market, it said.

Natasha Mudhar, founder, The World We Want (WWW), said evidence is available to suggest that women in India, and in other countries around the world, have faced the brunt of the coronavirus impact across employment and education.

WWW is a global social impact enterprise launched to accelerate the achievement of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The pandemic led to school closures, and with women statistically bearing the majority of childcare and household responsibilities, many were left with no choice, but to leave their employment, she said.

“However, we can take lessons from the pandemic and use them to catalyse a ‘new normal’ for women in employment,” Mudhar added.

“Lockdowns showed us the benefit of flexible working models and hybrid systems, allowing access to new resources for employees which could coincide with childcare responsibilities and enable the two to better coexist,” she said.

Mudhar further said employers should take it upon themselves to apply flexible strategies and access to technology to build on the lessons learned during COVID-19 and create a more accommodating environment for women.

“This was an issue before the outbreak of the pandemic, but we have now seen evidence that hybrid models are in fact productive. This sentiment is echoed worldwide.

But for the informal economy, she said the lessons are different.

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on this sector, but the challenges remain similar to those of a pre-pandemic time. We require strong infrastructure which focuses on the upskilling of lower-skilled female workers. The informal sector lacks access or awareness to smart gadgets and the knowledge of using them and a conscious effort must be made to change this through localized education programmes,” she added.

Mudhar said schemes can also include inbuilt minimum work days guaranteed for women, with mandates on urban local bodies to pursue gender-responsive works and IEC campaigns. Such programs have the potential in facilitating women back into the labor force.

Poonam Muttreja, Executive Director, Population Foundation of India, said the economic and social fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing women further into poverty and ill-health, threatening to reverse decades of progress made towards gender equality.

“The pandemic increased the caregiving burden substantially on women, especially due to school closures and home quarantining measures. The lack of economic security coupled with a substantial increase in the caregiving burden and lack of domestic support has pushed many more women across the world to quit the labor market permanently. It has also impacted their mental and physical health outcomes negatively,” she said.

Going forward, Muttreja said, it is imperative that policies and programs place women and their needs at the centre.

For example, adequate provisioning for daycare facilities and post-school child care services and work from home opportunities will support women in continuing to work. We also need a greater representation of women in senior, political and decision-making positions, she said.

Muttreja said the differential impact of the pandemic is a culmination of social norms which have acted as the greatest barrier to gender equality for centuries. We need to invest in social and behavior change communication strategies that will help improve the status of women and acknowledge their critical contribution to society as a whole.

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