• Angad Chowdhry

Analysing Impact: How the Internet shapes girls’ voices and choices in the workforce

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

The onset of COVID-19 has given a new spin to “women in the workplace”. For the first time, men and women are required to work from home together. With this “new normal”, men and women are forced to confront the harsh reality of their roles at home when it comes to domestic and caregiving responsibilities.

Before the pandemic, women were doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men globally. This reflects a universal norm that women are responsible for domestic work and caregiving. The pandemic has only intensified inequalities between men and women and exposed how disasters leave women more vulnerable.

Across 18 countries, women were 4% more likely than men to say they strongly agreed that their care load had increased during the pandemic. In the United States, among parents with children under 12 years, women consistently reported spending more time on home schooling and childcare than men.

During disasters, women are also vulnerable to unemployment and financial hardship. In the United Kingdom, 40% of women work part-time, compared with only 13% of men. In heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to be low earners, meaning their jobs are less priority when disasters hit. Our study in India also found that since the pandemic, less women are searching for jobs or business ventures online.

The pandemic has reinforced a harsh global reality: Social norms dictate that women are not expected to work and if they do, will still face the brunt of domestic duties and caregiving.

In fact, have you tried Googling what a workplace looks like?

Well, we did. When analyzing digital stock imagery of workplace culture in India, we found more images of established businessmen. Any focus on women was related to their appearance. In particular, when someone searches for “successful person” in India, we see a clear skew towards men in business suits. These results give you a glimpse of how society has normalized men in the workplace, but not women.

Even before the pandemic, women in the workforce have declined globally with some countries seeing wider gaps than others. In India, women’s labour force participation rate has plummeted from 42.7 % in 2004­ to 23.3% in 2018. As COVID-19 threatens to widen the gender gap in the workforce, we have to ask:

What are the barriers that women and girls face when it comes to jobs and skilling? How can we enable them to realize their unmined potential? What role does the Internet play?

In this article, we build off our last series that looked at how girls in India are embracing the internet, and differences in rural and urban girls’ Internet usage. For this study, Quilt.AI analyzed search and YouTube data from 100 villages and 33 cities across 7 states in India: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

The findings gave us a glimpse of girls’ day to day experiences and the importance of influencing people around them. We came back with three key takeaways.

Girls want Jobs but Have No Skills or Lack Safety

In India, nearly 40% of adolescent girls between 15–18 years do not attend school and lack requisite skills to find employment. Contrary to girls, boys who lack education are still able to get a wide range of jobs such as drivers, and construction supervisors. However, for girls, these occupations are deemed socially unacceptable or not easily available.

Even when a girl completes school or acquires a vocational skill — she faces barriers in the workplace. Many times, girls are only able to access low-skilled and paying jobs as they remain unqualified for managerial positions or high skilled jobs. The advent of technology, digitization and automation also forces women in low skills and low paying jobs to lose their place in the workforce.

Furthermore, structural issues around the safety and accessibility of workplaces limit girls’ ability to find employment. Having to travel long distances to work can leave women vulnerable to harassment or assault. For girls in urban areas, affordable transportation and hostels pose a challenge. Not many employers are prepared to provide the infrastructure that would enable their fuller participation.

How does this manifest online?

Our study found that women were searching for “jobs that require no education”, “jobs without a degree” and “jobs for uneducated”. These searches were more prevalent in rural areas and varied based on state. For example, in February 2020, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh saw dips in these search terms while Bihar, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh saw slow growth.

The desire to work but fear of safety were also prevalent in the search analysis. We found growing searches for “working womens hostel”, “ladies hostel” in metro areas (Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai). The search growth indicates demand for employer-sponsored accommodation for working women.

Women also turn to YouTube for information but are met with mixed messages. On YouTube, there are adverts for vacancies in the hostels and room tours of accomodations. At the same time, there are publicized incidents of harassment in women’s hostels, reinforcing girls’ fears and hesitation to seek employment.

Many People Stand in the Way

Girls face multiple gatekeepers in their communities. Teachers, family members and local leaders define a girls’ role and opportunities from accessing a mobile phone to enrolling in school.

One of the biggest barriers is gatekeepers’ deeply entrenched belief that a woman’s place is within the four walls of a home. This belief is manifested in the cultural expectation that women should prioritize housework and care work.

It is also perpetuated at various levels. For example, at a government level, Rajasthan’s education board encourages women to stay fit by doing domestic chores. Videos on social media depict husband’s expectations of wives in a “humorous” way — especially to stay at home.

How does this manifest online?

Alarmingly, this belief is also evident in our analysis. Searches reflect less interest in working/ business women as they dip to 0 searches in some weeks. On the other hand, searches to “be good housewife” range between 75 to 100 a week. This reflects the importance women place on fulfilling their home responsibilities.

Outside of search data, there is a proliferation of local video uploads depicting village life and the “domestic village girl” on YouTube. These videos feature young girls performing household chores like sweeping, making tea, and tending to animals. They perpetuate social norms by romanticizing and infantilizing girls as being ideal domesticated caretakers.

In the videos, girls are depicted as “angels” who derive joy in performing domestic labor. Similarly, there are growing searches for village girl images across states, e.g. “beautiful village girl image”, “village desi girl”, “dehati girl photo”. These searches reach more than 10,000 a month across rural and urban areas.

Girls internalize these norms — online and offline

At a young age, girls are surrounded by gender norms that dictate their role and opportunities. For example, women and girls bear the brunt of household chores which are perceived as ‘feminine’ and expected to continue these duties after marriage. Daughters are also seen as a burden as their families associate them with a dowry and added financial stress. These beliefs are some of the reasons girls are married early or prevented from going to school and pursuing jobs.

How does this manifest online?

We found that even when women seek employment, it is kept within the realm of their home. This limits her business to skills like tailoring, knitting, and embroidery.

In urban and rural areas, searches for “home-based jobs” and “part time jobs for housewife at home” surpasses 5,000 every month. Bihar and Gujarat have some of the highest searches. It reaches about 750 and 400 searches in January 2020 and declines during the national lockdown in March 2020.

In our analysis of YouTube videos, we found that the dominant narrative is for women to stick to gender stereotypical jobs. Informational videos to start a business encourage women to engage in“female-oriented” work such as jewelry making or Agarbatti making. Venturing into male-dominated arenas is out of the question.

We also observed that homemakers used YouTube as a platform to proudly own their domestic identity. Modern housewives posted their household routines and activities in vlog-style on YouTube. These women are local influencers. One video upload with the hashtag #HousewifeRoutine can garner over 50K views. Though it is a positive act of reclaiming the home, this ultimately serves to reinforce beliefs that women are meant to aspire to a “housewife lifestyle”.

Against all Odds, Girls are Thriving

Our study confirms that barriers exist at various levels — some that require systemic interventions while others are at a community and individual level. Despite these challenges, the Internet also displays the tenacity of girls and women.

We found that girls are using social media to post their achievements along with searching for and sharing stories about successful women. Female role models, especially local leaders in sarpanches, are examples of women who overcame gender barriers in patriarchal communities. By taking on non-traditional roles, these women help to shape norms by breaking expectations of how a girl/boy ‘ought’ to behave.

With the power of the Internet, their stories and those of other female role models, can reach millions across states, creating a ripple effect and inspiring young girls to dream bigger.

We also found that girls are using the Internet to find local skill development programs. With the right interventions, we can leverage the Internet to direct girls to such programs at scale and equip them with the skills to pursue jobs.

COVID-19 is challenging and reshaping gender norms at home and in the workplace. It is vital that we improve circumstances for girls and women by advocating for employment and skill development. In this process, the Internet is a powerful tool to build an army of girls who shatter gender norms for generations to come.

Reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more about our work.