While it is a well accepted fact that the Covid-19 crisis has been disproportionately affecting the health of men more severely, women have been feeling the effects of the coronavirus in different ways. Before the pandemic struck, they were already underrepresented in the workforce – particularly in tech – and the crisis has further deepened this chasm.
In the lead up to The Rising 2020, the second edition of Analytics India Magazine’s Women in AI conference, we reached out to several accomplished and successful women in tech across industries to hear from them directly:
Working From Home – A Blessing Or A Curse?
The tech industry, as a whole, maybe benefiting from work-from-home policies amid the pandemic, but its effect on the lives of working women tells a different story. The greater share of (unpaid) housework and increased burden of childcare is where Covid-19 seem to have hit them the hardest.
“Barring some exceptions, I believe that most professional women who’ve been able to work from home have had to take on round-the-clock duties that were typically shared by and delegated to daycares, schools, parents, and domestic help,” says Nidhi Pratapneni, SVP, Product, Analytics & Modelling, PVSI at Wells Fargo.
According to her, most women credit their support system for their career successes, but with that largely vanishing amid the lockdown, the Covid-19 crisis could further hamper their return to – or progress in – the tech industry.
The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the chasm that still exists between male and female professionals, thanks to cultural perceptions and expectations. In fact, according to a report, women in the tech industry are almost 1.5 times as likely as men to feel a greater burden of childcare due to Covid-19-induced lockdowns.
While working women had been taking on the bulk of domestic labour even before the lockdown began, the Covid-19 crisis has only compounded this issue. In fact, a recent report states that nearly 60% women felt that their familial duties skyrocketed since Covid-19. One of the key reasons may be because their ‘second shift’ – as it is popularly referred to – now has to factor in children kept home from school as well.
“The pandemic may have put additional productivity pressure on all tech professionals, but the familial burden on women has increased manifold,” says Shweta Berry, Head of Strategic Alliances – Industry & Academia, Marcom and CSR – at Aeris Communications. “Even though working women in India have been conditioned to do a ‘second shift’ at home after returning from office, extended remote work has disrupted their work-life balance,” she adds.
All this necessitates that women get access to additional support to maintain their mental well-being during the Covid-19 crisis. Chimes in Jaya Vaidhyanathan, CEO of BCT Digital, who is also part of the board of directors of an NGO specialising in women’s mental health:
“I have also observed that women are the most vulnerable in this segment with increase in stress and loneliness,” she says. “Technology jobs have their unique requirements – global clients, managing different time zones, time-bound delivery, etc. Coupled with an increased burden of childcare and the pressure on productivity, it is important that their mental well-being is not ignored,” she adds.
Normalising Working Overtime & Increased Opportunities
Amid a global recession and growing economic uncertainty, many tech companies are putting added pressure on employees to be productive. While Covid-19 has demanded that all professionals make critical adjustments, everyone is not equally impacted, given that some, like most women, have additional responsibilities to shoulder.
However, despite the challenges, Sashikala Viswanathan, Director – Corporate Quality at CSS Corp, chooses to find the silver lining in this situation:
“Over the past few months, not only have we grown stronger, we have also become more attuned to our needs, responsibilities and commitments, both at work and at home,” she says. “It will be an unfair generalisation to say that Covid-19 has hit women in tech harder. In fact, work from home arrangements have given women the opportunity to spend greater time at home and balance out both professional and personal commitments better,” she adds.
Agrees Shilpa Rao, Head – AI powered Strategic Intelligence & Sustainability at TCS, “There may be several challenges that women may have had to overcome during the lockdown period, but there is a positive side to this as well. The pandemic has made work from home a norm for several tech companies, and this has opened up more opportunities for women to come into the workforce, who previously had stayed away due to childcare, travel or familial needs,” she says.
However, while it may be fair for companies to expect employees to work harder as it navigates the rough seas of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is just as important for them to facilitate that transition, particularly for its female employees.
“I am used to remotely handling different teams and stakeholders. While the lockdown kept almost all countries away from their workplaces, I had to be more mindful as a leader and set in place more effective means of communication, team engagement, and new processes that keep our work uninterrupted,” says Leela Rani, Head Asia – Architecture and Deployment Central Engineering – Vehicle Networking and Information at Continental Automotive India.
Similarly, initiatives such as regular employee engagement, training to work efficiently in remote models, counselling, parenting tips and webinars will greatly help. Adds Shilpa Sinha Harsh, SVP – Global Corporate Communications, CSR at HGS:
“Work from home options have certainly helped our female employees. They have largely managed to be highly productive on the work-front as well as at home despite the additional challenges,” she says.
Should Women Be Worried Amid Mass Layoffs?
While the recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic could hurt the economic prospects of both men and women, the latter is more likely to be laid off as companies look to restructure their workforce to cut costs.
“It’s a fact that COVID-19 has affected some people more adversely than others,” says Sasikala Mahesh, Head of Delivery at ThoughtWorks. “More women hold entry-level jobs and their shorter tenures mean they are more likely to receive the pink slip,” she adds.
This has been corroborated by a McKinsey report which states that women made up 37% of entry-level roles in technology. What is more, with women making up a greater percentage of the workforce in severely affected industries, including hospitality and retail, their jobs or pay are likely to be cut.Adds Usha Rengaraju, a data science consultant, “Lot of technology companies have ‘return to work’ policies for hiring women on break as part of their diversity hiring. But Covid-19 has put pressure on the hiring process of many tech companies. Lot of women who were planning to restart their career through such programs will be disappointed,” she says.