Are women paying the price as work shifts back to office space?

As tech companies in Bengaluru bring in new mandates around working from office a fixed number of days, both employers and employees face new challenges

Updated - July 08, 2023 09:13 am IST

Published - July 06, 2023 09:14 pm IST

Working from home during the pandemic reset the domestic arrangements for some women, keeping them from returning to the office even after everything normalised, says a report.

Working from home during the pandemic reset the domestic arrangements for some women, keeping them from returning to the office even after everything normalised, says a report. | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

In May this year, Susheela Pavate, 41, quit her high-paying tech job after a disagreement with her line manager about mandatorily reporting to the office four days a week. “After three years of working from home, I found the switch tough, along with the long commute to work,” says the mother of two. Pavate reasons that she is more productive working from home. She puts the hybrid work norms down to company rigidity.

In a week’s time, software professional Janavi (name changed to protect privacy), 32, has to report to the office twice a week, as the multinational technology company in Bengaluru she is employed with has ended the fully remote work.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Janavi relocated to her hometown, in Udipi district in Coastal Karnataka, where she enrolled her school-going child in a local institution. Moving to the metro is not going to be easy as the academic year has begun, and this young mother has little social support.

“I have written to my reporting manager asking if I could work eight days at a stretch from the office, but I am yet to hear from them,” says Janavi, adding that she wants this relaxation for the on-going academic year.

Also read | Remote working new normal; 82% employees prefer working from home: Study

If this young technology professional does not get a reply favourable to her, she will be forced to quit. She may find work soon enough at a workplace that allows for remote working, but finding work is not easy.

“I don’t want to quit without an offer in hand. And some of the companies that I have started enquiring with have hybrid systems with mandated days to report, which I am not sure if they will agree with my requirements,” Janavi says a fully remote job will work best.

Mandatory return-to-work policies coming into place are causing worry not just for working women, many of who feel they may have to quit or change jobs, creating some instability in their professional, economic, and family lives.

An estimated 1.8 million work in IT and ITEs in Bengaluru, concentrated mainly in the east, southeast and north, with areas such as Whitefield and Electronics City housing big tech parks. Women’s participation in this sector is around 35%, according to industry sources.

The Manyata Tech Park in Bengaluru.

The Manyata Tech Park in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

IT Minister voices concern

On June 27, Karnataka Information Technology Minister Priyank Kharge tweeted that attrition among women in the tech industry is at 30% to 40%, against the industry average of 12% to 15%. He termed it “worrisome” and has written to the National Association of Software and Service Companies to come up with a solution.

In early June, Tata Consultancy Services, in its annual report 2022-23, said attrition of women in its 6 lakh-strong workforce has been higher than men. Chief human resources officer Milind Lakkad called this “unusual” as women’s attrition rate in the company has been similar or lower than men.

“There might be other reasons, but intuitively, I would think working from home during the pandemic reset the domestic arrangements for some women, keeping them from returning to office even after everything normalised,” the CHRO says in the report.

The Hindu spoke to software professionals who had resigned in the last six months to find that many had switched jobs in search of more flexibility, work-life balance, better working conditions, higher compensation and growth opportunities. Many even quit to start their own ventures.

Shefali Hiremath quit her tech job with a multinational company to float a catering venture with her mother and sisters-in-law. “I got used to a flexible working style. Now it is tough for me to go back to work most days of the week. I don’t see productivity or data security as the reason behind calling us back to work,” she argues.

Some of them say the downside of a hybrid working model is the office determining where and when to co-locate with colleagues or even where to sit. The job market has not been particularly favourable for some of these professionals amidst layoffs and a slowdown in hiring.

Shilpa V. least expected finding a new job to be difficult when she quit her workplace of six years. “I tried speaking to the senior leaders in the company about why I don’t find the work meaningful for my calibre, but they gave me the cold shoulder,” says the software professional with a specialisation in new-age tech skills.

The Global Village Tech Park in Bengaluru.

The Global Village Tech Park in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: File photo

Not specific, but higher in IT

Human resource managers and staffing firms say rising attrition is not specific to the IT industry, but it’s definitely higher than in other sectors. “The issue is amplified in the tech sector due to the volume of white-collar talent and women workforce it has. Also, the workforce in tech is comparatively more mobile in comparison to other sectors,” says Kamal Karanth, co-founder, Xpheno, a specialist staffing company.

B.S. Murthy, CEO, Leadership Capital, a Bengaluru-based CXO hiring firm, feels calling employees back to work has come as a “syndicated move” from companies. “No doubt work from home has given professionals ample flexibility and work-life balance, but tech firms have taken a syndicated decision to get most of their people to offices on most days. So irrespective of gender, they have to get used to the hybrid work culture, more so when it comes to creative projects that require better collaboration,” says Mr. Murthy.

The brighter side

The rising attrition must be compared to the positive backdrop against which this is happening. Since the start of the pandemic, the top five Indian IT services bellwethers have seen a 44% growth in the women workforce, says an analysis by Xpheno. Increased focus on hiring and diversity initiatives has moved the workforce of women in this “cohort of bellwethers” to 5.36 lakh in March 2023 from 3.74 lakh in March 2020.

The top five Indian IT firms comprising TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL, and TechMahindra alone have added 1.65 lakh women professionals to the tech sector since 2020, says the report from Xpheno

A similar trend was seen among MNC players such as IBM, Microsoft, Accenture, Cisco, Capgemini, HP, Dell, Cognizant, and SAP. Tech start-ups also remained bullish on hiring women from March 2020.

The back-to-office return churn is not specific to gender. Also, women are quitting in search of friendlier hybrid and remote working models. “The job-seeking activity by women professionals from the IT services cohort has nearly tripled over the last two months. The volume of active and accessible women jobseekers from IT services has also doubled during this period,” says Mr. Kamal.

In the current tech job market, one-fifth of current active white-collar opportunities are for full-time remote and hybrid openings, says the report by Xpheno.

Way forward

K.S. Viswanathan, vice-president (Industry Initiatives) at the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), says they are yet to notice any trend in the exit of women techies. “Return to work is real. Also, hiring women and their participation in technology are only on the rise in India,” says Mr. Viswanathan.

Some of the other obvious reasons why women drop out from the workforce is the unequal balance of managing household responsibilities, including caregiving, at home. Suchita Dutta, executive director, Indian Staffing Federation, says in the absence of a supportive environment at work and home women face stress leading to mental health issues.

She adds that systemic issues, both at home and work, contribute to unequal outcomes for women, including pay disparities that hinder career advancement and work-life balance. Though there’s little debate that flexible working is here to stay, what needs to be seen is how companies prioritise it.

Women need the office

While the debate is on whether compulsion to work from office space would force a section of women to quit, it also throws focus again on the universal truth that women carry a heavier burden than men when it comes to child care and household chores. So a workplace that is demarcated from home is something that some women look forward to and historically fought for.

For instance, Aagal Anilbabu is accustomed to working from home and the office, but she would score the latter for running her day through a schedule with fewer distractions. “There was no beginning or end to your day when working full-time from home during the pandemic,” says Aagal, a business consultant working with a team of 60. Now, she works from office three days a week. “There’s a different joy in mentoring younger colleagues and bonding with people across cultures,” say the mother of two working with an Indian MNC.

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