Bangalore Talkies: Women, Work and the Covid-19 pandemic
It is exactly two years since Covid-19 showed up in China and then in our lives. What are some memorable incidents or takeaways from it? Well, here’s one.
In the throes of the lockdown, a strange event happened in our privileged apartment community in Bengaluru. What was strange was how normal we thought it to be at that time.
Like most apartment buildings, ours too banned all external help from entering the community unless they were essential. Covid was raging all through Bengaluru. News of unnamed Covid-positive corpses being thrown into common Covid-burial sites made the rounds. We were all petrified of catching the virus. Household help for the elderly who lived in our building was allowed. But pretty much everyone else had to fend for themselves.
Then came a request. A young man wrote to the building committee asking if his cook could be allowed inside the building. He was a single working man, he said and needed food. This was discussed. “Tenant in Apartment 845 wants his cook to come-- on alternate days at least-- to cook for him,” was the gist of the discussion on the committee Whatsapp group. What was interesting was that most people in the ten-person committee, including the women, thought this to be a normal request. Most were inclined to view it favourably and allow the cook to “help” the young man. “Why should he starve?” was the view. Till one male member of the committee called him out. Why were we allowing the man to get a cook? Just because he was a man and couldn’t cook for himself? In short, yes. That was the implicit bias that all of us were operating under. Men needed help cooking – nothing wrong with asking for support in that area.
As the pandemic hopefully says goodbye, the ‘gendered impact’ of the pandemic is well-known. How now to take stock and make changes? For women, the pandemic has been a source of more work and more angst. Many of us have been asked the question: has the lockdown opened the eyes of society to the “multitasking capabilities” of women? It is meant as a compliment, but it is actually a curse. Thanks to the pandemic, women have been forced to multitask more than ever, taking care of school-age children who are fed up with virtual classes, caring for elders who are driving them batty, enabling their husbands who usually tend to earn more money and are therefore necessary to bolster the household’s finances. But what about the working woman herself? Who is going to enable her?
A harder and more necessary stance might be the opposite. Yes, women can multitask, but men can too. Thanks to being home-bound during the lockdown, some men found that they loved to cook and were terrific at it. Others found new purpose in helping their sons and daughters with art projects or math homework and took delight in being indispensable to their kids-- “for a change,” as one said.
In my view, praising a woman’s ability to multitask confines her to the stereotypical role of a caregiver and enabler-- which in turn puts less pressure on men and society to admit that there is a problem in how disproportionately women shoulder the burden of the household.
Unlike at companies where jobs can afford to be specialized, households require flexibility, fluidity and agility-- from all partners. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that men can be great Moms-- packing the kids off to school while their mother takes a zoom call from the US team. Rather than celebrating the woman’s ability to do more, I think it is time for society to celebrate the man’s ability to do something-- inside the home. Men can and should step up and own up to household chores. It should no longer be acceptable to say, “Oh, thanks to the pandemic, my son has learned to make tea.” As if a simple tea deserves a crown.
India has among the lowest participation of women in the workplace. As a nation, our economy needs to bounce back from the Covid-19 recession. Supporting women in both roles – at home and the workplace – is not just good for the soul of society. It is great for the economy too.
Here is the thing: the pandemic only highlighted what we all knew. The fact that Indian society penalizes working women – doesn’t support them – was known even before the pandemic. It is what medical doctors call a pre-existing condition. The sooner corporates, governments and businesses act to nudge women back to the workplace, the better it is for India. Even the most traditional ministers who talk about “Bharatiya sanskar” can buy into this. Yes, a woman’s place is at home, but also at the workplace if they so desire.
Frankly, other than the delivery of a baby and breastfeeding, every other function can be shared by the husband and wife-- without prejudice or stereotype.
As for the man in my building, he could jolly well learn to cook for himself. About time. At least that is what the building committee decided, and we all lauded them for it.