How COVID-19 Is Affecting Gender Roles

There has been a prodigious amount of misconceptions surrounding the word ‘gender’ and its associated connotations. Simply put, gender is a social construct; a cultural norm which stipulates how a person is to conduct themselves in the social environment. Is is often confused for a biological fact, which is most often employed to refer to a concomitant term, ‘sex’. India, historically, has been a conservative nation when it comes to culture and ethos; though it is a melting pot of different norms and values, its stance on gender roles are not evolving as fast. While it is frowned upon to treat westernization as modernity in a country like India, it would not be imprudent to consider borrowing certain attributes pertaining to gender equity from the western world into our cultural temperament. But the question at hand is, how does the impenetrable and watertight gender roles that eclipse our culture correspond with the relative incursion of a worldwide pandemic debacle in our everyday lives, even at the grassroots level which is the household?

Perhaps, it would be expedient to assume the pandemic has affected both men and women equally but if one decides to take into account statistics, they’d find that the category of essential workers in the paramedical department comprises more of women than men. As this translates to the family degree, it implies that more women have to work during the lockdown era as a comparatively substantial proportion of men stay home. This presents a dilemma regarding the aforementioned rigid gender roles of our culture by contradicting what was hitherto a norm for men to be the breadwinner and women to be the caretakers of the domestic sphere in a family. It directly challenges the archaic notion of the archetype equation that comprises a nuclear family. This would also be why it wouldn’t be a surprise if we happen to witness more men coming forward and taking up their shares of household activities alongside women.

The systematic dogma of gender roles has been indelibly entrenched far beyond our sentient perception. But what might appear alarming is that we ourselves are contributing to the reinforcement of this system without our own knowledge. One instance of this is rooted in our parlance and quotidian vocabulary. We often use the verb “help” when we refer to men doing domestic work that is conventionally assigned for women, and vaunt about them for “helping” around the house. Although as innocuous as the usage of the term seems superficially, it can have potent and consequential connotations from a much wider perspective beyond what we see on the surface level as “helping” implies that men are merely lending a hand and fulfilling an onus, and not satisfying their own needs around the house which should be bisected with equal responsibilities. Another observation that our culture and ethos tends to sideline and belittle is how a woman is expected to serve the guests in the kitchen while men are inclined to socialize with them in the lounge. This paradigm might seem trivial and inconsequential but contributes to a bigger picture of gender roles. This typification of an inequitable social construct can be observed in other epitomes, masqueraded in our daily life without our awareness.

COVID-19 pandemic and the anthropause that commenced as a direct corollary of it has had manifold implications on the employment and job sectors of the country, and this has particularly been a cause of hebetude for working women, given the economic and gender disparity that is ever so prevalent in the current job market. Women are hence more susceptible to the blight that has befallen the economy as a whole. Statistics point towards the fact that the current working strata where women are employed mainly ranges from casual labor or domestic works to small scale industries which require minimum skill qualification in industry oriented cities. Thus, it was a foregone conclusion that the predicament of wage cuts and unemployment would only be aggravated when the pandemic hit its pinnacle stages. Moreover, the Lokhti-CSDS survey (2017-2018) had made it clear that almost two-thirds of the employed women in informal and unorganized sectors of the economy (those which aren’t directly registered with the government) are consorted with the low income socio-economic classes or the indigent population. Case in point, the lockdown would further affect their destitute condition.

Another lesser ventilated topic with pertinence to the COVID-19 pandemic is the much important crisis of domestic violence. With the downward shift in the daily employment graph as a repercussion of the lockdown that ensued post-March, the cases of domestic violence has doubled according to statistics provided by the National Commission of Women. This in itself is an understatement as the survey above only takes into account the number of reported cases of domestic violence, where victims have come up front to share their story. Therefore it is virtually unfeasible to form a cogent and compelling panorama that can provide an in-depth picture about domestic violence, but there is an analogous relationship between loss of jobs for men due to the lockdown in rural localities and the intensifying rates of violence in domestic households.

The fact that the gap between gender roles has been tapering ever since a malady took over the way of life we practiced before the lockdown does not supersede over the underlying causes for why we are laid witnesses to this monumental but tentative shift in the current scheme of things. In fact, the reasoning that a lot of the responsibilities that men face now that they didn’t before is not merely situational, nor can we consider it tenuous or insignificant. It is not by voluntary action or progressiveness by any means that we find this reversal and upending of gender roles, but merely because there is no other choice than for men to fairly contribute to domestic activities since they’d find women already being egregiously overburdened with having to juggle their roles inclining towards the society and their family simultaneously.

But alas, we cannot rightly ascribe all the reproach and blame for this inherently rigid stereotype and oversimplified generalization of the roles both men and women play in the status quo to our culture itself, nor can we exculpate it for the same reasons. The vantage point from where both men and women are perceived by working environments also have a considerable influence on the complexity of responsibilities both men and women take up in the society. Men are expected to be more ideally competent and committed workers in offices. This is dichotomous to how workplaces see women, with a fallacy that they’re also supposed to meet the expectations of their respective partners in the house while concurrently having to deal with the demands of the places they work at. Hence, men are met with more inflexible hours and workload that often distracts them from the needs of the household and the role they play thither, which the women supposedly should take care of, as stipulated by the convention. If a father is granted paid leaves for taking care of a newborn just how a mother receives, he would mature to be an equally proficient and adept parent who is capable of taking care of his children to a maternal figure, overshadowing the intrinsic ineptitude many men face when it comes to developing a visceral connection with their own children, consequently them taking up half the responsibilities women are anchored down with.

In the turmoil of events the world was unprecedentedly burdened with recently, there is no guarantee that the nuances and discrepancies in the relative gender roles will have a long lasting influence and consequence on how the familial social institution will continue to function. As events unfold, the conundrum of when the state of affairs will return back to the normal we’re familiar with is a matter of great uncertainty and has caused an upheaval of unfathomable proportions in the whole system. Perhaps, the virus brought down a change for the better even if the change is short lived ephemeral condition; a blessing in disguise for both nature as well as social equity. Many scholars have attributed the cognomen of ‘the great equalizer’ to COVID-19 and all its subsequent ramifications. Apropos to this, if the entire pandemic situation has taught us anything, it’s that the world as we used to live it, is unsustainable for the planet, as well as for mankind. But what we can proclaim with certitude about in this whole ordeal, is that we are definitely taking steps forward towards a world with open-ended and adaptable gender roles and norms.

-Harishankar M (Freelancer)

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