When it comes to women in the workplace, despite being a feminist, for years now I have been happy to sweep any thoughts about it under the carpet. Thankfully, in my journey so far I haven’t seen any glaring instances which meant that I didn’t think much on that front either, even though I have been a staunch vocalist for financial feminism. But, recently I was just voicing some view about women to a friend who then nudged me towards think about women in the workplace. In my experience, when you focus on something, things that were once blurry in the horizon start becoming sharper.
Now, that I have started reading more about it and have it at the back of my mind the stark reality of 2020 is becoming that much more apparent. Hence, a post about the global economic downturn that we are currently witnessing which has also been christened as a shecession.
Origin of the word, Shecession
Some days back I came across this term and of course it activated my googling bug. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008-09 was called by some commentators as a mancession since men formed a disproportionately high number in the people who lost their jobs. When you think about it some more, these pieces fit since one of the industries most impacted was financial services where women are still in a major minority (some oxymorons just fit).
This crisis that we are going through is a very different beast. Globally, women are facing far higher challenges and even their so-called multi tasking skills are being put to the test. Sample this for numbers. In September this year, 865,000 women left the workforce in the US, compared to the 216,000 men. That means four times as many women are now unemployed and not looking for a job.
In India, where we are more data scarce, the situation is not very different. The data comes from a CMIE’s (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy) CPHS (Consumer Pyramids Household Survey) database whereby they cover 170,000 households thrice a year with 11,000 being covered each week. As per official figures 100 million men lost their jobs as compared to 17 million women. However, in terms of self-reporting 29% lesser men reported themselves as employed as compared to a drop of 39% among women.
Hence, Nicole Mason president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research went ahead to proclaim that an apt term this time round would be a shecession considering the disproportionately higher impact on women and their livelihood.
Why is it a shecession?
When I read up, two main reasons frequently cropped up as reasons for why women are bearing more of a brunt in this downturn.
1. Women form a larger part of contact-based workforce
All jobs have not been equally impacted by the pandemic. There are some roles which have effortlessly telecommuted. On the other hand, contact-based experiential industries can just not do so by design.
Unfortunately, women form a big chunk of the former. Think hospitality, aviation, F&B or even wellness. With rampant labour downsizing in that domain, more women found themselves out of a job.
2. Childcare and house work could not be outsourced
In normal, pre-covid times, life for most women was anyway a precarious balance of work and family. This pandemic has proven to be that last straw to break the camel’s back in a lot of instances. When child care cannot be outsourced for even a few hours a day or house work piles up, focussing on work is that much more difficult. While some spouses may be evolved enough to try to “share the load”, sometimes the load is just too much for two.
On top of that, Work From Home has been quite something in itself blurring boundaries between home and office. Where do you even begin to draw the line?
When it all starts piling up and in a high risk of toppling over, it’s easier to just have one person quit the workforce to manage on front. Since gender wage gap is an open secret, economics dictates that women are the ones to withdraw.
What are the implications?
While the answer to this question will be truly known in hindsight, there are some estimations being made.
1. It’s going to make a bad situation worse
Currently, India holds literally no brownie points when it comes to a macro level situation of women in the workplace. Some numbers from this NDTV article are really troubling. We have one of the lowest female participation in the labour force at less than a quarter. In fact, ironically enough women’s education rates have gone up while female labour force participation has gone down from 42.7% in 2004-05 to 23.3% in 2017-18. Mckinsey & Company’s latest Women in the Workplace report shows that apart from job losses, one in four women are considering dropping out of the workforce due to the demands of motherhood. This shecession is going to mean two steps back where any step forward is anyway at a crawling pace.
2. Pay gap will continue to be an uphill task
As per the same NDTV report, while globally women earn about 84 paise per rupee earned by men, in India that figure is a dismal 65 paise. Considering a lot of women might end up taking a hiatus, bridging this gap is going be that much more difficult. When the gap remains, in a household a woman’s job continues to be more dispensable. Hence, her value in doing unpaid house work also seems to make far more economic sense and any other time that there is a toss up the same dynamics could continue playing out.
3. Economic recovery could take longer
One of the main pivoting points for economic recovery is improving household consumption. Now, the demand for this consumption depends on the household income. When labour force participation becomes so skewed and gendered, the economy on the whole experiences the after shocks for much longer. With better gendered balance, economic activity also thrives better.
4. Flexi timings could become more acceptable
One of the aims of Elementum Money is to attempt a balanced view for almost every situation. This one is no different. There are two possible hints of silver linings. Although, currently the work-from-home culture is much cursed for the way work has managed to seep into personal time, gradually it could become a blessing. As the situation starts to normalise and it becomes okay to go back to office, the boundaries might again find their way back between home and work. However, the rigidity around visibility and face time might dissolve with this new found comfort from remote working. Flexi timing has frequently been stated as one important step for women to be able to continue working as they balance familial aspirations. This pandemic might help us turn that corner.
5. Men could increase their share of household work
Before I start on this point, the disclaimer is that this one could be a far shot. A report by Vox EU suggests that there has been a sizeable increase in childcare responsibility under taken by men during this pandemic. Another report suggested that it is now more commonly understood and even accepted to have children interrupting work calls. Not just for women, but for men too. In some ways, this pandemic could mean a deeper association between men and family rather than associating it only with women. Whether this nascent development remains limited to this period or is able to survive beyond this trigger is to be seen. If it does survive, it could be an unparalleled input to bridging the gender gap, albeit very slowly.
The fact remains that this pandemic-triggered economic downturn of 2020 is very aptly being called a shecession for the disproportionate toll it’s taken and is still taking on women. There is also no denying that the repercussions of it are going to take us back and erase quite a few gains of the recent past. However, gender equality is an important goal to pursue with this Mckinsey Global Institute Report finding that getting there could add $12 Trillion to the global economy by 2025. If employers and policy makers are conscious of it, then we can all do our bit to gradually closing the gap, in the workplace and at home.
What has your experience been in this Shecession? What are you doing to bridge the gender gap?