Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender roles

Working from home blurs the line between working spouses and homemakers. From filmmakers Nitesh and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari to Clovia co-founders Pankaj Vermani and Neha Kant, meet seven power couples who say it has helped make marriage more equal

Rajiv Singh
Published: Jul 20, 2020 01:47:29 PM IST
Updated: Jul 20, 2020 03:07:58 PM IST

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesRahul Garg, principal, Kalaari Capital; Rupal Agarwal, director and head of Asia, Equity Quant Research, AllianceBernstein
Married for 10 years, have a seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter
“Both of us are from IIT, ambitious, and busy. The only point of friction was how can my career be more important than hers?” Rahul Garg
Image: Aalok Soni

It was turning out to be a winter of discontent for Rupal Agarwal. Soon after getting married in February 2010, the investment banker from Lehman Brothers moved from Mumbai to London to join her husband, Rahul Garg, in the same organisation, which is now owned by Barclays. (Barclays had bought Lehman’s core business in September 2008, days after it filed for bankruptcy). Though the young couple began their day early, Rupal had a head start: Getting up early, making breakfast and packing lunch. The duo would then leave for the office, and be back late in the evening. For Rupal, the work continued at home. With no house help, she had to cook, clean the house, finish pending chores, and hit the sack on time to get up early next day to make breakfast, and rush to office.

The routine continued. Nothing changed a bit. Neither Rahul or his preoccupation with office work, nor the mostly biting weather of London. After a few weeks, Rupal put her foot down. “It was taking a toll on me. I could not manage both: Work at home after a grinding day at office,” she recalls. After a few months, the couple relocated to India.

The location changed, but the routine and roles still largely remained the same. Over the next few years, Rahul dabbled in entrepreneurship; he co-founded ethnic fashion and handicrafts ecommerce platform Artisangilt in 2012, exited after two years, was CEO at online gifting company IGP till 2017, till he joined Kalaari Capital. Rupal’s career, too, had taken off. She became vice president at Japanese brokerage company Nomura, and then director and head of Asia Equity Quant Research at AllianceBernstein. On the personal front, Rupal had become a mother of two kids. From household chores, the focus now shifted to the boy and the girl: Their food, school, life, routine.

One thing, though, remained the same: Getting up early. “Even if I slept at 1 at night, I had to wake up early for the kids,” she says. Ten years into marriage, there has been only one persistent point of friction between the couple. In spite of both being equally educated, from IIT Bombay, equally ambitious, equally flourishing in high-pressure jobs—and equals as parents—Rahul’s role at home was almost negligible. “How come his career is more important than mine” was a sentence, and an argument, that haunted both.    

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesPankaj Vermani and Neha Kant, co-founders, Clovia
Married for 15 years, have a six-year-old son
“For the last three months, I have been totally sucked into the new business and Pankaj has been taking care of the kid, his work and household chores.” Neha Kant
Image: Abhishek Singla

Cut to July 2020, Mumbai. Over 100 days of work from home—and with house helps still staying away—Rahul is a transformed man. From mopping the floor to doing the dishes, from cooking to chopping vegetables, making evening tea and putting the kids to bed, the investment banker has donned a new avatar. “I have become an inspiration among my friends,” he says laughing. “It’s a 360 degree turn. Now I am sharing the load.”

Though the pandemic triggered a behaviourial change, Rahul doesn’t make any excuse for previously staying dormant on the domestic front. “I was immersed in work, used to travel extensively, but I still could have done my bit,” he rues. One thing, he stresses, he would change from his past if he could, would be his role at home. “I should have been there for her, and the kids.” There is a realisation, there is transformation and there is an eagerness to go the extra mile to make up for the past. “Now she doesn’t have to cut down on her sleep,” he says with a smile.

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender roles

Rupal may still be among the luckier ones. Over 71 percent women in India sleep less than their husbands due to household chores, contends Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer of creative agency BBDO India. Paul has rolled out a campaign—#ShareTheLoad for equal sleep—this year, which is an extension of the ‘Share The Load’ campaign which he launched for Ariel in 2015. The laundry detergent brand from P&G has been championing the cause of gender equality, and sharing the load, at home. (See box) 

Meanwhile in Gurugram, Pankaj Vermani has had sleepless days and nights over the last three months. Reason: Neha Kant, his wife and co-founder of lingerie brand Clovia, was sucked into the new business opportunity that emerged after the lockdown: Personal protection equipment and masks. Working over 16 hours a day, Neha couldn’t devote time to her six-year-old son, and household work. “For three months I don’t know what time my child slept or what he ate,” she recounts. “I couldn’t take out time for them.” Her time was spent on phone calls and Zoom calls.

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesAgnello Dias, creative chairman, Dentsu Aegis Network, and co-founder, Taproot Dentsu; Nandini Dias, CEO (India), Lodestar UM
Married for 27 years; have two kids
“It’s not macho-cool anymore to not be aware of where things are kept in the kitchen... the spectrum of masculinity has broadened considerably.” Agnello Dias
Image: Cohaan Dias

With no help at home, Pankaj was coping with something he was not used to: Managing his son, and house. “He was a mama’s boy. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do.” On the second day of the lockdown, when his son asked for lunch at 3.30 pm, Pankaj felt terrible, and guilty. He made food for the child, and set an alarm on his mobile and watch that would alert him about his son’s meal times: Breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. Apart from playing stay-at-home dad to his son, and managing his work at Clovia, Pankaj added more heft to his new role: Laundry and dusting.

There was something more that Pankaj was doing; unwittingly breaking the gender mould that he has grown up with. Coming from a middle-class family in Uttar Pradesh—and much like any part of the country—the roles at home were always sharply delineated: The man was the breadwinner, the woman was the homemaker and the kitchen was her domain.

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesRajesh Sehgal, managing partner, Equanimity Investments Shilpa Sehgal, partner, Equanimity Investments
Married for 19 years, have two teenagers, a 17-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son
“Parents should play out how they expect kids to behave. That’s how they learn. It (gender equality) starts at home.” Rajesh Sehgal
Image: Aalok Soni

In fact, till 2015, the picture remained the same. A Nielsen India study on Indian households conducted for Ariel found that while over two-thirds of women felt there existed inequality at home, men believed laundry was a woman’s job. More, 70 percent of married women spent more time on household work than their husbands; and 85 percent of working women felt they had two jobs, one at work and another at home.

Enter ‘Airtel Boss’ in 2015. The commercial made for the telecom major had a woman who’s her husband’s boss in the office. But, back home, the same ‘boss’ ended up cooking dinner for her husband. The stereotype didn’t go down well with many.

Agnello Dias, the brain behind the commercial, contends that the debate the advertisement caused was unintentional. The more interesting part, underlines the creative chairman of Dentsu Aegis Network, and co-founder of Taproot Dentsu, was not that the woman was shown as a boss at work, but that her husband reported to her. Equality, he maintains, stems from true freedom for both genders to be able to do exactly as they wish and not be compelled to do it by societal expectation. “If one feels like playing multiple roles, one should be allowed to do that without having to choose one over the other.”

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender roles

Dias, for his part, has been playing multiple roles, and not just during the lockdown months. From cooking to cleaning to everything at home, it’s a shared workload with his wife and two kids. “It’s not macho-cool anymore to not be aware of where things are kept in the kitchen,” he says. The spectrum of masculinity, he lets on, has broadened considerably, not only in size but also in colour, shape and texture. The head of the family is no longer defined only by his alpha male warrior ability to go out and fight the big bad world in order to fend for his family and put bread on the table, but also by his sensitiveness, understanding and appreciation of what’s going on inside the house. The celebrated adman, though, confesses that his wife Nandini ends up doing more. “I tend to get bored or lazy and goof off many times.”

Nandini Dias, CEO (India), at Lodestar UM, asserts that tasks, at home and outside, must be democratised. Commenting on gender equality at home, Nandini reckons that the frame of reference is far more emotional. In India, she points out, often the marriage takes place as a transaction, and emotional involvement is only through the children. People not genuinely involved with each other don’t particularly care if things are equal or not. “Many times it is not that the individual is a mean or bad human being. It is just that they don’t care enough,” she adds.

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesSanjeev Kumar, partner, L&L Partners
Married for 17 years to Ruby Sinha, a communications professional; have two daughters, 15 and 9 
“I was surprised to see papa making pizaas. It was fun. He has become our in-house chef.” Saanvi, younger daughter
Image: Madhu Kapparath

The stats, and the ground reality, even in countries where marriage is not seen as a transaction are disturbing. A Gallup poll in the US early this year indicated that women still handle the main household tasks. While 58 percent were mainly responsible for the laundry, 51 percent did the cleaning and cooking. Things aren’t rosy in the UK as well. Last year, in a study reportedly conducted by University College London (UCL), it was found that gender norms remained strong in household chores.

Women, the report pointed out, did approximately 16 hours of household chores every week, while men did closer to six.
Back in India, women spent 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes per day in rural areas on unpaid care work in 2018, according to ILO data. The corresponding number for men was: 29 minutes (urban) and 32 minutes (rural). Another set of data by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OEPD) exposes another abominable reality: Indian women spend up to 352 minutes per day on domestic work, which is 577 per cent more than the country’s men (52 minutes).

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesBakshish Dean, chef and restaurateur; Rupali Dean, food and travel writer
Married for 25 years; have one daughter
“Food has no gender, household chores have no gender. When the family belongs to both, roles must also be performed by both.” Bakshish Dean
Image: Amit Verma

Meanwhile in Mumbai, venture capitalist couple Rajesh and Shilpa Sehgal contend that things are changing in India, and the pandemic might be the much-needed push that was needed. Prolonged work from home, reckons Rajesh, managing partner at Equanimity Investments, has seen the involvement of men shooting up at home. Post-lockdown, and with no house help, the work at home was done on rotation. From chopping veggies to doing the dishes to making omelettes past midnight for his wife, Rajesh has been actively doing his part of the work. “There are no fixed roles. All of us have pitched in, including our two teens,” he says.  

Shilpa, partner at Equanimity Investments and married to Rajesh for 19 years, takes a dig. “I haven’t had the opportunity of being served breakfast by my husband ever,” she says with a grin. Lockdown, and work from home, changed everything. “I am quite lucky,” she adds.

Gender Mender: How WFH is demolishing gender rolesNitesh Tiwari, filmmaker, screenwriter and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, filmmaker, writer
Married for 15 years; have twins, a boy and a girl
“It has to be a relationship of equals, where there is mutual understanding and respect.” Nitesh Tiwari

Hectic work-related travel and the presence of house help confined the role of the duo in domestic chores to the minimum, hence equality at home never became an issue. “It was always ingrained in our relationship,” says Rajesh. “And this is what the kids have picked up from us.”

Parents, especially fathers, play a crucial role in breaking gender stereotypes. Take, for instance, Sanjeev Kumar, partner at law firm L&L Partners. Married to a communication professional for 17 years, the lawyer never adhered to the notion of a son making a family complete. “I have two daughters, and they complete my family,” he says. Though Sanjeev’s extensive travel schedule usually doesn’t give him much time to exhibit his culinary skills, he has been making up for that by churning out continental dishes and pizzas. The kids, in turn, are loving it. “It’s great to see him cook and do the work at home,” says the elder one Samya, 15.

There is another lesson in cooking. “It can’t be identified with a gender,” says celebrated chef and restaurateur Bakshish Dean, who was influenced by his father during childhood. “There was equality at home. And no domestic role had any gender tag.” The way everything is structured at Dean’s home after lockdown is simple: The chef has taken over the kitchen and laundry, his wife takes care of other chores, the daughter pitches in with dusting and the mother-in-law plays the role of a captain, supervising work, and intervening only when required. “You don’t need to create any role. All of us have taken up what we are good at,” says Dean.

Back in Mumbai, the filmmaker duo of Nitesh Tiwari and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, too had a seamless transition to auto-mode after the lockdown. For eating anything fried, Nitesh turns chef, and for having anything healthy, Ashwiny comes into the picture. “He has an engineering brain and is impulsive,” says Ashwiny, alluding to the rules Nitesh follows during cooking. If a Youtube video shows that only one tablespoon sugar has to be added, she explains, Nitesh would stick to it. “I can’t lead a measured life,” she says. Staying true to her life philosophy, Ashwiny’s recent movie Panga shows how a working mother dares to relive her dream with the support of her family. Nitesh, too, for his part has made movies exhibiting the dominant side of women such as Dangal. In a family, Nitesh explains, what matters most is love, care and respect. “These are the traits I want my kids to have rather than score high marks in exams,” he says.

 Though work from home has seen the blurring of gender stereotypes and roles, it has also brought to the fore rising cases of domestic violence across the country. “It exposes absence of love, care and respect,” says Sunieta Ojha, women’s right activist and lawyer at the Supreme Court. Conceding that the lockdown and subsequent work from home have seen the load at home being shared, she says the trend is confined to top cities. “As long as it remains a one-man show, the discrimination and biases would stay,” she says. Gender equality at home, she underlines, has to start from men, which will then percolate down to the kids. A new narrative is needed, she adds.

Dollar Industries, Kolkata-based hosiery and knitwear company, is trying to change the script. In its new TV commercial, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar is seen playing the role of a father who is narrating a fairytale to his daughter. The story ends when the princess rescues the prince. Startled, the daughter asks how can it happen because it has always been the other way round in the stories. The dad smiles, and says things have changed. “It’s a new story,” he says smiling.

Can India too start a new chapter in gender equality at home? Well, work at home is getting reloaded.

(This story appears in the 31 July, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)