India is gradually reopening the economy. Home deliveries, in parts, have become functional, workers are returning to factories, shops have started lifting their shutters, and those working from home for months will soon resume their office routines.
But in all this, women, as usual, will likely be left behind.
This seems paradoxical. Companies have laid out new work from home policies. Chief executive officers talk excitedly about the ease of Zoom calls and the diminished value of travel. With a pandemic-induced work-from-home world, they realise the potential of another talent pool they can tap into-the 120 million secondary-educated women who do not yet participate in paid work.
Work from home models can meet the latent demand. In one national survey, over a third of women engaged primarily in domestic activities said that they would prefer paid work if working from home was an option. And this goes beyond theories and surveys. A popular career platform for women in India saw a dramatic rise in the number of women looking to start or restart their careers in recent months. This coincided with a 30% increase in work from home job postings on the platform in March 2020.
This seems straightforward. But those who are working from home during the pandemic can attest that, outside the computer screen, there is an equally demanding world-which requires you to answer the doorbell, prepare meals for the family, and look after the children and elders. Such tasks further exacerbate the time constraints women normally face. Even before the pandemic, for every hour of housework-cleaning, nurturing, cooking, teaching, managing- that Indian men put in, women put 10, far higher than the global average of three, and among the highest levels of gender disparity in unpaid work in the world. Even at minimum wage rates, unpaid work could contribute $300 billion to India's economy.
The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has added to the burden of unpaid work that women already carry - by an estimated 30%, according to the consulting firm Dalberg. With schools shut, millions of children are now home for an indefinite period. Due to the threat of the virus, families are wary of letting children in daycare centres or allowing part-time help in their homes. Even as work from home arrangements hold immense promise for women, the absence of reliable care services tilts the balance against them.
Steps to ramp up and professionalise India's care economy will ease up the usual burden on women. Functional care centres for children and older people employing safe and trained domestic workers can help women pursue career options. The absence of extensive national standards or certifications in India for paid childcare-such as mandatory pupil-to-teacher ratios or teacher-training standards-reduces the incentive for childcare providers to raise quality. It also makes it harder for parents to find and evaluate good childcare options. A service industry model, with accredited training and certification, can address the concerns. A public-private approach, where care services are viewed as public goods with powerful economy-wide productivity benefits, is worth trying too.
A professionalised care system will reap dual dividends-not just enabling many women to work, but also creating employment for many others. By our estimates, India's care industry has the potential to absorb up to 10 million women into the workforce and create another four million jobs, a vast majority for women. Some countries have shown evidence to this effect. Mexico's Day Care Support for Working Mothers programme has generated more than 40,000 paid jobs for (mostly female) community-based care providers and aides, while Singapore has created opportunities for almost 250,000 foreign domestic workers - the demand for care workers in the country is expected to grow up to 300,000 by 2030.
The benefits of working women tend to trickle down. For example, when children were enrolled in community daycare centres in Rajasthan for prolonged periods, they showed gains in nutrition, hygiene, cognition, and school readiness.
One way to go about creating an effective care economy is by implementing "Bridgital" solutions (technology that leads to more and better jobs). Childcare workers-whether attached to a care-centre or are home-based-can be integrated into a cloud-based management system that allows them to report completed tasks, monitor health and other outcomes, and undergo training. This will allow real-time monitoring by supervisors and better feedback to parents. Care professionals can acquire portable credentials on such platforms, while organisations that embrace such services and standards will have an edge in talent recruitment.
Without solving for care work, we cannot leverage the opportunity offered by work from home arrangements. By acknowledging the economic rationale of the care economy, India can make it easier for women to work for pay-and equally reap the productivity gains of doing so.
This article first appeared in Hindustan Times.