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The case of closed doors and broken ceilings

Gender impact of the pandemic

Subramanian (Subu) Krishnan, chief strategy officer, and Bianca Joseph, planner, TBWA India, hold forth on the gender-impact of Covid-19. From women choosing to opt for "bushy eyebrows, hairy legs and straight out of bed looks as the new normal”, to the increased incidence of “shared gender-responsibilities”, the pandemic has been a mixed bag for gender equality

Earlier in 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned the world saying, “Covid-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women's rights”. With the gloom and doom in the past year, his words seem less like a warning and more like a prediction.

The impact of the pandemic has largely been gendered. It is important to differentiate between the infected and the affected. While the virus did not seem to affect one gender more than the other, the pandemic surely did. It has deepened pre-existing inequalities, if not created new ones. This has exposed the vulnerable within our society. So far, everything about the pandemic seems to be like a dark cloud. One that is hovering over the lives of women in India and indeed, around the world.

As homes turned into offices as well as the school for children and dining rooms turned into conference rooms, women suffered a greater lack of acknowledgement for their work. While closed doors meant more family time for the privileged, to some others, it meant silently bearing the brunt of domestic violence. But most of this is already well documented. While these negatives were evident like dark clouds, there were some silver linings too.

Beauty: from impressing the other to embracing the self

Beauty in the before-Covid (BC) era found its meaning in impressing the ‘other’. This could be the male gaze or social sanction. Social standards pushed women to conform to a cesspool of beauty stereotypes. But forced time at home has made women question whether these beauty standards are their own. They took to the internet and initiated conversations like normalising hairy legs. Even beauty influencers participated in these discussions.

Bushy eyebrows, hairy legs and straight out of bed looks have now become part of the new normal. Looks that were once considered uncouth by most, are being embraced and normalised. Most women dressed up because they were conditioned to believe that they must do so. The lockdown has changed this. Putting on makeup or dressing up has become a choice. And choosing otherwise is no longer conditional to looking beautiful.

“I dressed up for no reason today”, became the big internet mood.

Work: from work restrictions to passion paying bills

While the world was getting shut indoors, doors of opportunities opened up for women. The lockdown provided an opportunity for homemakers to convert their passion into a profession. While most wouldn’t consider the lockdown period to be a lucrative time to start a business, yet, some women turned their passions into small businesses, be it cooking, baking, sewing or art. Even statistically, most entrepreneurs who started their businesses during the pandemic are women.

It’s not just entrepreneurship that the pandemic boosted. The lockdown was a blessing in disguise for women from conservative families, who weren’t given the freedom to work due to archaic restrictions and insecurities. WFH allowed for them to un-pause their dreams.

Relationships: from independence to co-dependence

Women have been fighting the battle for independence for decades now. While this war hasn’t been won yet, they have taken strides towards a freer and more equal world. In the past, campaigns, movements and organisations have focused efforts on empowering women. But the pandemic has made us realise that even independence needs some co-dependence.

While women have taken on many roles in life, they are still the homemakers in most Indian families. There has always been chatter about shared responsibilities at home. Yet, these conversations were never put into action. While the lockdown took away access to domestic help, appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines are still luxury in many Indian households. But with families cooped up at home for months, responsibilities are getting reorganised. Men have started helping with tasks that were traditionally seen as a woman’s job. That could mean cooking, cleaning or attending online classes with their children.

While women are still doing most of the work, there has been an increase in the time spent by men on domestic work. So, will the lockdown be the great leveller for Indian gender responsibilities, or will this be a passing trend? There is evidence that these winds of change will continue in a post-pandemic world. But only time will tell if homes may finally be on the way to becoming more gender-neutral.

Health: from care to vigilantism

In India, women have been always considered to be the designated caregivers of the family. While holding their own lives together, they have also been put in charge of their family’s well-being. And they have been fulfilling these responsibilities for generations. They ensured that their families eat, sleep and play right. This was done with emotional blackmail, supported by the power of traditions.

In these pandemic times, demonstration of care has gone through its own transformation. Women are setting strict medical protocols, altering the diet and lifestyle of the family. Caring now comes with hyper-awareness and constant vigilantism. Women are going from blindly showing care to now reasoning with it. They are enforcing hygiene backed by knowledge and not mere traditions.

While much adversity was faced by women behind closed doors, there were also a few ceilings being broken. No benefit could outweigh the negatives of the pandemic. But trying to make the best of a bad situation makes it more tolerable. This one did too. Hopefully, by IWD 2022, these changes take a deeper root. Especially among those who have not benefited from the silver linings yet.

Subramanian (Subu) Krishnan is the chief strategy officer and Bianca Joseph is a planner at TBWA India.