Why Covid-19 became a women's problem in urban India

In the work-from-home era, the burden of unpaid and domestic work on women has increased, taking a toll on their careers and widening the gender gap at workplaces. Here's how organisations can help fill this chasm

Updated: Jul 16, 2021 01:44:17 PM UTC

The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the ways in which urban India works. Lockdowns and mobility restrictions have resulted in far longer work from home (WFH) stints for those in the corporate sector than envisioned in March 2020. This systemic shift has impacted men and women differently.

Trends in employment data reveal that urban women were worse off than other groups (urban men, rural women and men) during the pandemic. First, urban women experienced the highest unemployment immediately following the national lockdown, and thereafter. Urban women’s unemployment rates rose from 23.5 percent in March 2020 to 31.9 percent in April 2020 and stayed higher than other groups even until June 2021.

Second, urban women’s jobs were the slowest to recover compared to other groups. While urban men’s employment recovered to March 2020 levels by October 2020, urban women’s employment had not recovered to the same levels even by June 2021.

And third, over 2 million urban women migrated back to rural areas, likely in less paying, more labour-intensive work between March 2020 to March 2021.


Women continue to be more vulnerable to job losses in the corporate sector compared to men. Women are overrepresented in cost centres—secretarial/administrative work; they form less than a third of the workforce in revenue-generating teams—marketing, sales; and less than a fifth in growing sectors—engineering, cloud computing, data analysis, and artificial intelligence (WEF, 2020), placing them at greater risk of redundancy in post-Covid work arrangements.


Despite increased flexibility owing to WFH, the burden of unpaid work on women increased during the pandemic. Indian women undertake nearly 10 times more domestic care work than men (NSSO, 2019). In a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of women in the corporate sector reported an increase in care work since the pandemic began, a third felt that their caregiving work is making their career progress difficult and almost a quarter were considering quitting the workforce altogether.

Almost 43 percent of urban female solopreneurs reported a loss of productivity due to domestic work during the pandemic. Consultations with women from the corporate sector, diversity and inclusion firms, academia and journalists undertaken by Nikore Associates between September 2020 to May 2021 revealed that prolonged school closures, lack of institutional support such as childcare facilities, limited support from spouses were making balancing expectations at work and home unsustainable.

The lack of representation in leadership positions exacerbates women’s vulnerability to gender bias from management. Only 2.8 percent of Indian firms have female-majority ownership.  Women also form only 4 percent of senior management positions. A recent survey of male managers found that 83 percent believed women should be provided flexible work options only once they have proven to be high performers, and 56 percent felt that women should choose domestic responsibilities over their career when work-life integration becomes challenging. Women say they have felt pressure to work longer hours, be available instantly, and perform better than peers while working from home to dispel conscious and unconscious gender biases from management, often resulting in a vicious cycle of low motivation, poor performance reviews and high attrition.

The gaps in diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies were felt strongly because of the pandemic. Only about 17 percent of Indian organisations have formal mentorship programmes for women, and just 15 percent have set gender targets for promotions, compared to 22 percent and 19 percent globally, respectively. Moreover, our consultations have found that WFH reduced informal mentorship opportunities and interactions with male bosses for women, thereby making it tougher to be selected for coveted projects. In addition, several firms had not put in place any specific guidelines on video conferences late in the night, or clear definitions of harassment while working virtually, leaving women employees vulnerable to sexual and other forms of harassment.

Building on experiences learnt during the pandemic, Indian firms can invest in digital tools and formulate policies to increase gender parity at work. Some medium-term steps to implement a gender-inclusive strategy at corporates could include:

1. Collect universal gender metrics
Companies need to track the proportion of women, not only in the overall employee pool but also at different levels of seniority and in various job roles to prevent disproportionate impacts on women employees.

2. Invest in diversity and inclusion (D&I) technology
Harnessing D&I technology can help diversify talent acquisition, advancement, retention and leadership. For instance, Accenture UK achieved 50 percent female technical recruits by deploying Headstart’s D&I metrics throughout its recruitment cycle.

3. Introduce women-led policy for hybrid work
When a pregnant Sheryl Sandberg walked from a distant parking spot to her office, Facebook instituted a policy of providing pregnant women parking closer to the entrance. Companies should entrust women to design D&I policies for hybrid work in post-Covid era. Run pilots, seek feedback from female employees to improve chances of success.

4. Encourage men to be equal care-work partners
Presently, only 5 percent of Indian firms offer paid care work leave, and 12 percent provide flexible work options for care persons. Offering gender-neutral care work leave and work arrangements; urging male employees to take time to contribute to unpaid domestic work; asking senior managers to share their experiences of dividing work at home in open forums can foster a more inclusive culture.

5. Review POSH policies
Companies should review their existing POSH policies to ensure that the definition of “workplace” covers WFH arrangements—the home or dwelling place of employees. The POSH policies should also make it clear that passing remarks or advances of sexual nature on the electronic mediums are defined as sexual harassment even during WFH. Most importantly, the procedures for reporting during WFH should be clearly defined.

Covid-19 has provided the Indian corporate sector with a unique opportunity to conduct a natural experiment with increased flexibility, and create an output or deliverable-based work culture, as opposed to the current input or workhours-based system. Corporates should now strive to create gender-inclusive hybrid workplaces.

The writer is a Founder of Nikore Associates, a youth-led economics research and policy think tank.

Laboni Singh, Manvika Gupta, Ishita Upadhyay and Shruti Jha of Nikore Associates have provided research and writing assistance for this article.

Several findings in this article draw on consultations with over 60 stakeholders belonging to CBOs, academic institutions, government agencies, women-led SHGs, and corporate sector organisations conducted by Nikore Associates between September 2020 to May 2021 to understand the impact of Covid-19 on women’s lives and livelihoods.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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