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Posted by Rianka Roy
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated and normalised ‘Work from Home’ (WFH) in the Indian tech-industry. Waged labor has appropriated the domestic space with support from hyper-digital infrastructures. Various stakeholders, corporations and tech-unions alike consider this especially beneficial for women, since this arrangement allows women to fulfill domestic care-giving obligations, while simultaneously performing as high-skilled workers. Befitting conservative cultural norms, women-in-tech in India have been ‘rehabilitated’ to domestic spaces.
For women, however, WFH has erased the liminal opportunities of autonomy—between domestic unwaged labor and waged labor at the workplace. Under ordinary circumstances they would extract a few hours or moments of leisure between work and home, but that possibility has diminished in the new arrangements. The tech-workers I have interviewed for my study unanimously state that the volume of work has increased in WFH. To make matters worse for women, cases of intimate partner violence have surged globally during the pandemic.
These issues draw attention to the prevalent marginalisation of women in the industry. Indian tech-companies (IT and ITES combined) employ about 34% women, and the majority leave the industry in the first five years of their career. Cultural anxiety about heteronormative family values, stress of erratic schedules, institutional prejudice against motherhood, and caste identities bar women from joining and surviving in the industry. Women globally get fewer opportunities in core tech-work such as coding and programming.
Data from the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) reflect that between 2012 and 2018, women’s participation in Engineering education steadily declined, across all caste categories—from 34 percent in 2012-13 to 28 percent in 2017-18. In 2017, there were only 26% women in engineering roles in Indian tech-companies. At this rate, if in a year 29% women start working, after twelve years the number will plunge to 7%. Before the pandemic, about 40% women engineers in India were unemployed due to workplace sexism.
In India, women are significantly present in call center/BPO work, because feminisation of labor in the Global South has incorporated women in low-wage sectors, with less protection and fewer benefits. Besides, call center work essentialises so-called feminine attributes such as submissiveness and gentle demeanor. These low-end jobs, however, are predominantly unsustainable and are often at odds with women’s family obligations. While WFH has indeed allowed women to join the workforce from domestic locations, in many ways it has exacerbated women’s persistent crisis.
In the interviews, male tech-workers explained the benefits of WFH. Despite the increased workload, they would not mind much if the practice continues beyond the pandemic. Some of them pointed out how women benefited from this new arrangement of labor. Others, in a gender-neutral way, emphasised the utilities of WFH for all workers.
Women disagree that WFH is essentially helpful, but their experience of WFH is quite diverse. For them, it cannot be defined as a binary between easy and difficult—but rather as a continuum, framed within the various domestic roles women have to fulfill. This lays bare the primacy of domestic care-work even for ‘liberated’ high-skilled women in India.
In my study, women in heteronormative marital relationships are more critical of WFH than single women. Nikitasha, a married woman (34, Kolkata) with two children narrates the horrors,
“The work pressure has been multiplied by so many times I cannot say— but it is not the same scenario for all women… My client is very demanding. I am sitting in front of the laptop at morning 11 o’clock and I am able to finish my work at 3 am. Apart from the financial pressure of the covid situation you have to do everything, every household chore by yourself because you are not allowed to have any maid at home in this scenario. I am taking care of both the kids and handling so much work pressure. The work pressure is very high.“
Eesha, a single woman (45, Bangalore), however, applauds the flexibility of WFH as an “entirely positive thing.” She adds,
“People have realised that it is possible for an employee working on a client project to organise the day according to his or her priorities. So it is not essential that everybody should start their day at 9 am. I can start my day at 11 am and I can continue to work till 8 pm, in a hypothetical situation; whereas somebody else might like to start early at around 8 am and wind up by 5 o’clock.“
Despite her neoliberal emphasis on flexibility and individual autonomy within the market, Eesha is aware of her married co-workers’ struggles. She, however, finds that companies leave the matter to “the interpersonal dynamics between a manager and the team.” A “good manager” tries to ensure that team members “have flexible time and they can organise their day accordingly.”
Again, there are similar experiences for women across job and relationship categories, as well as locations. A married engineer in Kolkata (28), another in Pune (36) (who, incidentally, is married to a man in the tech-industry), a single BPO worker in Hyderabad (33), and another engineer in Bangalore (33) lament that during the pandemic, they have to cook almost everyday—a chore they could avoid when they had access to the office cafeteria.
Support and Solidarity
The support that women workers receive from male co-workers and tech-unions, regarding maternity leaves and prevention of sexual harassment, reinforces stereotypical gendered labor. Narendra, a male interviewee (38, Kolkata) explains, rather gallantly,
“As a male employee I feel it is my responsibility when any woman or any female employee is working with me and they are having kids. So obviously, sometimes I have to take some extra responsibility so that she can spend some time with her own kid.“
Independent of such external support, women-in-tech have formed everyday networks of solidarity to reach out to each other. These women-only and women-majority groups exist on social media and popular messaging apps. All women respondents of the study mention how these networks help them through this difficult period. They learn about each other’s difficulties, and share work and non-work-related tips on these networks.
Sometimes, companies use these gendered enclaves for grievance redressal. Women managers in tech-companies, invariably fulfilling their institutional care-work obligations, resolve women-workers’ problems on these networks, without seeking intervention from higher authorities. This means, the companies can dodge responsibilities for gender equity in everyday encounters.
These everyday networks, however, are insular and exclusionary, as they do not include women workers from other industries, and economic categories, who, too, have been affected by the pandemic. One woman in Bangalore (33) also mentions that these groups also double as ethnic enclaves, and remain segregated from other ethnic and linguistic communities. While these collective spaces resist women’s isolation, the fissures also betray persistent paradigms of inequality and exclusion within and beyond the tech-industry.
WFH arrangements are likely to continue beyond the pandemic. Some tech-companies will at least adopt a “hybrid” model. This means, women’s precarity may persist, and the issues of domestic overwork may remain unaddressed. At this stage, it is essential for institutions and unions supporting women-in-tech to recognise the structural problems that entrenched inequality. It is necessary to recognise that women’s problems are not limited to sexual harassment and maternity leaves. Several other issues such as wage gap, limited networking opportunities, burden of unwaged domestic labor and domestic violence are equally detrimental to their professional growth.
In order to strengthen women’s collective resistance, it is also important to create sustainable bonds with women in other organised and unorganised sectors, across class and caste identities, whose lives have been severely disrupted by new labor arrangements.
Also read: 5 New Age Ed-Tech Startups Led By Women
Note: All interviewees of this study have been identified by pseudonyms, which they chose for themselves.
Rianka Roy is a doctoral researcher in Sociology at the University of Connecticut. She is on a study break from her teaching position to devote time to her current research on the Indian tech-industry. She completed her previous doctoral research at Jadavpur University, on social media surveillance. Her research areas are labor, gender, technology, new media, political economy and social movements. You can find her on Linkedin and Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India