I’ve always felt a sense of immense pride in telling people that my mother is a working mom, has been one for the past more than 30 years. She makes it look easy, juggling home and work, even though as I grow older, I understand how much it really isn’t. I aspire to be as deft at this balancing act as her. But the differences in our work profiles (her government job versus my corporate slavery), hours, stress levels and work cultures mean that it is going to be way harder for me. So does that mean I give it up and go the housewife / homemaker way? Not that I have anything against it, but let’s call a spade a spade. Housework and caregiving are essentially thankless jobs in our country. Especially if you’re a woman. It’s not something I can cite on my LinkedIn profile, and can count as work experience if I ever want to restart my career. Or is it?
But before we can delve into what LinkedIn has done, let’s look at how and why societies the world over treat housework as more of a ‘duty’ than a ‘job’.
Rigid gender roles are keeping women from entering and forcing them to leave the labour force
Gender. One word. So many entangled problems.
In our society, women have always been considered ‘naturally inclined’ to taking up caretaking and caregiving roles. Women can raise children better because they give birth to them. Women can clean and keep the house in order better than men can because it’s just a very feminine trait to want to take care of things. In fact, so indoctrinated are we with these ‘natural’ gender notions that even after a recent archaeological discovery smashed assumed gender stereotypes by suggesting that prehistoric women were just as much of hunters and providers as the men were, we choose to remain blind and follow patriarchal diktats.
Women must take care of the house and kids. Men must go out, earn and provide for the family. Since it is the modern world, and we’ve ‘allowed’ women to blur these lines, fine, women can earn and provide too. But only as long as it is fun and comfortable for the men. The moment it causes a little inconvenience and the questions is between a man’s career and a woman’s career, we’re reminded of the fallacious prehistoric assumption that women are caretakers and should return to that role, for the family’s survival.
Now, I’ve been taking a course in feminist philosophy, and one of the beliefs is that the only thing that is a ‘natural’ feminine trait is childbirth, because of course, biology is something we can’t argue with. Everything else, is a socio-cultural construct, i.e, put in place by the patriarchal society we live in. Which means, all those arguments about women being naturally or biologically inclined to be the weaker sex and more suitable for housework and caregiving? Yeah, bullshit.
I could cite a bunch of reasons, starting with systematic oppression of women to keep them ‘under control’ to men simply passing on jobs that they deem boring to women in the name of gender roles, as valid for this. But the fact of the matter is, these rigid gender roles are what are predominantly stopping women from entering the labour force. Because many of them believe it is not even meant for them. And those that want to are tied down by shackles of gender-specific responsibilities.
What’s more, those women who are already in the workforce have to fight a constant battle to keep themselves in it, and standing tall. Because something or the other is constantly threatening to pull them out or topple them from their position. Menstruation and menopause, marriage, pressure from home to balance housework and career, childbirth and rearing, caregiving for elderly or sick family members, sexual harassment in the workplace and being undermined because of their gender… these are just a few things which women have to battle on one front while proving themselves worthy of a job on the other.
Of course, all of this does sometimes interfere with their performance at work. And because our professional evaluation metrics are rigged to favour toxic work ethics and culture, women also suffer from unequal pay, being told that they cannot compare to what a man brings to the table.
Result? Women, tired of not being recognised at either their home or their workplace for their efforts, choose to quit the workplace. Because at least, at home, they’re doing it for the people they love. There are also those women who pick professional life over family, and there’s a whole different set of issues that can arise from that decision.
Basically, women just cannot win. And then, enter COVID-19.
COVID-19, lay-offs and double-burden syndrome—a triple attack on working women
COVID has been called the great leveller, since it doesn’t discriminate between who it infects. And it has managed to mess up life on the entire planet. But not for a second should we think that it affects everyone equally, for there are marginalised sections of the population, and of all of them women in particular, who’ve been struck hard by this tragedy.
COVID affected the soft industries like travel and hospitality, fashion and grooming on a higher rate. And these are industries with the highest employment rates for women. As a result, the layoffs impacted women much worse than it did men. On the other hand, with families confined to home and household responsibilities rising, with no paid help for the first quarter of the pandemic lockdown, women were forced to stretch themselves to balance both work and home, while living in fear of a possible virus infection if they worked in essential services and continued to step out for their jobs. This gave rise to what is being called the ‘Double Burden Syndrome’. Women were driven to a point where they had to choose. Most, willingly or unwillingly, chose home, thus leaving the workforce, probably never to return to it again.
The dark humour in this is that the pandemic just made this strain worse enough to give it a fancy terminology. The reality is, women have been struggling with this burden from the day they chose to work, whether in service, business or freelance. Because while men were exempted from these household responsibilities because they were earning livelihood, women weren’t. In fact, the household work was seen more as a duty than as a job, and their job was seen as more of a hobby, passion project or an extra-curricular activity that is dispensable, unless she was the sole earning member of the family.
According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Centre in the United States, more than 2.2 million women left the labour force between February 2020 and October 2020. If that’s the number for a first-world country like America, where the participation of women in the workforce is also more, can you image how staggering the number would be for India?
A World Bank report states that India’s Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) has been shamefully declining, and is the lowest in South Asia. In 1990, our FLFP was 30.3%. By 2019, it had fallen to an abysmal 20.5%. In fact, we’re just above countries like Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Iran, and Gaza in that respect. Feeling proud yet?
LinkedIn will now offer ’stay-at-home mom’ and similar titles in profiles for women
Let’s get back to where we started. Housework is such a thankless job that men don’t want to do it. Women are conditioned to do it. And changing that conditioning and rewriting the societal code for gender roles is a task to be undertaken over years and years. So what do we do for the now?
Adjusting the workplace, culture and hiring practices to accommodate these gender roles might be a good place to start. More and more companies are choosing to offer respites like period leaves and mental health sabbaticals keeping in mind the stresses that come with being a woman. And slowly, with a few pitfalls on the way, we’re getting there.
Recently, an article in Fortune magazine called out LinkedIn for its like of professional titles for people who had had to leave their jobs to take care of their families or raise their children. This came on the radar because a lot of that happened in 2020, during the pandemic, particularly with women exiting the labour force because they got laid off and then got so entangled in household responsibilities that they just couldn’t get back.
Now that the world is finding its balance, these people want to return to the work force. Unfortunately, even after we got our asses whipped by a global pandemic, recruiters and companies continue to view gap years and sabbaticals as something negative… a sign of weakness or lack of commitment and seriousness.What to do? Corporate loves fancy jargon, and euphemisms. Sigh.
LinkedIn turned around quickly with a solution. It is now going to offer a bunch of new titles that people can add to their profiles, starting with ‘Stay-at-home mom’. So, your work experience can actually list that, indicating that you weren’t just Netflix & Chilling on your couch. You were doing something important.
Is this just a gimmick or can it really do something for women?
Honestly, sabbaticals ought to be encouraged because our work stresses do often mess up with our mental health. So I am not a fan of having to explicitly explain every recruiter just what I did with my time off between jobs, because as long as I have the necessary skills and ace that interview, it should be none of their business.
That being said, I think what these ‘title’s can do for women is a much more layered conversation. Of course, there’s the superficial quantification of work that instantly gets highlighted when you add ‘stay-at-home mother’ or ‘caregiver’ or ‘homemaker’ to your CV. I mean, these aren’t exactly easy jobs. Do you even realise how much of female unpaid labour exists in healthcare?
But what this also does is add to the person’s work experience and life skills. Not in the strictest professional sense, of course. But if you think for a minute that these stay-at-home jobs don’t require budgeting, perseverance, time management, efficiency, problem-solving, and a leadership skills, you’re kidding yourself! Looking after a home, a child, an ailing family member require a skill set that is highly underestimated. And the work can sometimes be much more taxing than the one we do sitting on our desks with computers all day.
Anyway, these days, recruiters do focus on these broader life skills than they do on the literal knowledge and job training because all of that can be learnt on the job or through an online course. But the world is your oyster only when you have the core skills and character strength to do that, correct?
Thanks to Kamal Haasan, making housework paid has become a hot agenda in South India politics
While campaigning for the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan and his newly founded MNM party had a rather unique agenda—making housework by women paid labour. Ingenious, because so far, the only appeal political parties could make for the housewives, a huge chunk of the Indian population, were provisions like LPG subsidies, that actually affected them directly. But at the same time, this promise also ignited a debate on whether a standardisation was indeed possible to quantify the work that housewives did.
Of course, so far this has not morphed into anything serious, but can you imagine what this could actually mean? Let’s get some perspective.
According to a 2019 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the unpaid care work and the labour market, “Estimates based on time-use survey data in 64 countries (representing 66.9% of the world’s working-age population) show that 16.4 billion hours are spent in unpaid care work every day. This is equivalent to 2.0 billion people working 8 hours per day with no remuneration.”
What does this unpaid work include? Majority of it includes household work (81.8%), followed by direct personal care (13.0%) and volunteer work (5.2%).What’s more, if calculated on the basis of an hourly minimum wage, these unpaid services rendered could amount in salary to 9% of the global GDP!
And now for the grand gender divide. You’ll say women are always cribbing, but would you look at this little nugget of trivia. Across the world, without zero exceptions, women do three-quarters of unpaid care work (76.2%) of the total hours. Women dedicate on average 3.2 times more time to unpaid care work than men do. That means women put in some 4 hours and 25 minutes per day, while men input a measly 1 hour and 23 minutes. And this ratio does not shift in any country, not a single one.
Now think of all the possibilities that would open up for women, heck for the world economy even, if they started getting paid for their unpaid labour.
How LinkedIn’s one feature could pave the way for housewives becoming salaried and part of the labour force
I know, I know, lofty ambitions. But at this point, if a girl can’t have big money for her unpaid labour, she can at least aim higher in her aspirations. LinkedIn is a platform for professional networking, but it does a phenomenal job of allowing people to flaunt their skills, get recognised for it and even quantify them substantially in what they could mean for potential employers. And by letting individuals put forth their stay-at-home experience as legit work titles, it is instantly according them dignity and elevating their contribution to the work force.
And this dignity and recognition has the potential of becoming a stepping stone to making housework salaried, and thereby a substantial part of the labour force. It’s a tiny thing, yes. Perhaps, even inconsequential. But could it become something bigger with the right effort and intentions behind it?
In fact, if we are dreaming big, I’d also take a look at how this opens doors for shattering gender constraints around unpaid labour. Remember in Ki & Ka, when Arjun Kapoor’s character had no qualms about being a stay-at-home husband? He was indirectly helping the labour force, by equipping his wife to do her job well, thereby contributing to country’s revenue in some way. He luckily got the recognition he deserved, also because he was a man and this was a rare travesty (sigh). But imagine if housework did get paid, and a professional platforms and job search engines began recognising stay-at-home care as legit work that added to people’s work experience, more men might be inclined to take it up, in the event that the women in their lives had a better opportunity or stronger professional ambitions, like the CEO of this European fashion brand, Zalando did.
Dispel the stigma, and the imbalance could be fixed. One small step for LinkedIn, one giant step for gender equality?