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TN may boast of females contributing more to the paid economy but major challenges exist for working women. In September 2022, a 15-day residential training program for the Tamil Nadu Education Fellowship— a 2-year scheme launched by the School Education Department of Tamil Nadu (TN) to support the delivery of critical educational initiatives at the district level— was held at the Mathakondapalli Model School (MMS), a sprawling handsome campus hidden on the Hosur–Thally road.
The 170 fellows, of whom 101 were women, from across the 38 districts of Tamil Nadu had arrived at MMS to participate in a range of sessions – guest lectures by eminent speakers, intense practice sessions with advanced Excel, and learning circles where they explored mindsets and vulnerabilities.
On day five of the training, a deeply reflective space was organised to provide an opportunity for synthesis, sharing, and making connections, which I had the opportunity to facilitate. The session was structured as a spectrum reflection activity. The participants were presented with a statement and could place themselves on a range of responses and share their rationale with the group. One statement for reflection was, “How effectively were you able to engage in the training sessions so far?” This particular statement aimed to understand any challenges the Fellows faced and problem-solve for them with the facilitating team. A common roadblock? Many (particularly women) missed their families and homes too much to focus on sessions. But a handful of women distributed themselves on the other end of the spectrum. Having juggled the roles of cook, homemaker, caregiver, and teacher throughout the pandemic, they felt excited to be at a distance, both geographically and psychologically.
The exercise sparked questions about what work-home boundaries mean for women in Tamil Nadu, and if the pandemic has changed that
Urban Female Workforce Participation Rate (FWPR) in TN has stagnated at around 21% since the late 1990s and rural FWPRs have seen a dip in the last few decades
Tamil Nadu has an enviable Gross Enrolment Ratio in Higher Education by national standards (the national average is 27%, compared to TN’s 51%). Gendering the ratio, 49% of women in the age group of 17–24 years in the state attend college. The Government of Tamil Nadu has been increasing its focus on improving GER. One such initiative is the Pudhumai Penn scheme, through which all girl students in Classes 6–12 in government schools are provided financial aid of Rs. 1000 per month until they complete their graduation, diploma, ITI training or any other recognised post school course. The numbers underline skilled TN working women which is set to grow in the coming years.
However, these numbers do not translate to increasing participation of women in the work force. Women’s contribution to the paid economy is significant —the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in the state is 35.1% (rural) and 23.6% (urban) as of 2018-19 —significantly higher than the national average. However, the Urban Female Workforce Participation Rate (FWPR) in TN has stagnated at around 21% since the late 1990s and rural FWPRs have seen a dip in the last few decades. Several reasons such as lack of safe transport, need for re-skilling, childcare duties and cultural roadblocks, have made effective participation of TN working women in the workforce and their transition to formal work opportunities a challenge in the state. Immense untapped potential falls through the cracks between women’s education and employment.
Enter COVID-19 – rewriting stories of employment across the globe. During the COVID-19 pandemic, women either lost their jobs, were burdened with the added pressure of finding and creating more abstract boundaries between home and work, or quit due to piling responsibilities. In a study by Allbright, when asked about careers post-pandemic, 61% of women were planning to pivot their path altogether, hungry to learn, grow and build the careers they want. Tamil Nadu was no different and when the TN Government launched its flagship post-COVID learning recovery program, Illam Thedi Kalvi, women joined in large numbers (67,691, making up over 75%) as volunteers.
The TNEF reflection exercise did not throw up any surprises. Women shared their passion for contributing beyond the confines of their homes. The pandemic created a feeling of lack of purpose. They wanted to be part of a “larger something”. Many spoke about the urge to meet and work with new people post-pandemic. A few (mothers) even mentioned that the pandemic shed light on the cracks in the education system, and they hoped to create a change for all children. And these women returning to work with a newfound sense of purpose and boundary-pushing ideas still shouldered the responsibility of managing their homes and families.
To analyse work–home boundaries, we must understand the imaginary boundaries that separate (or don’t) the realms of life that contain our work and the rest.
Reasearcher Sue Campbell Clark in her paper on the work/family border theory, writes about the physical, temporal, and psychological borders that help one keep the work and home domains distinct. These borders (i.e. the point at which one realm ends and another begins), she says, are of three specific types –
- Physical borders, which demarcate the workspaces and homes, i.e., the buildings or walls
- Temporal borders, which identify each individual’s working hours and set aside the rest for personal activities
- Psychological borders, which classify the thinking patterns, emotions and behaviours that are acceptable in each domain
Clark describes people as being proactive instead of reactive as they move back and forth between their work and family lives, shaping them both. We erase and redraw our lines as we see fit.
One of the ways we can examine the work–home continuum across the physical, temporal and psychological borders is through the lens of the various artefacts that Christena E. Nippert-Eng sheds light on in her book, “Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries.” She writes, “The management of objects and activities over space and time is an extremely important part of the boundary work between home and work” (pg 98). A residential training program like the one at TNEF blurs all three borders between work and home – and we can validate this by looking at the artefacts Christena talks about. Unassuming objects like our keys, morning beverages, calendar, and actions like eating and talking, influence our work-home balance.
For starters, the physical boundary. At TNEF, there was no physical space for the “home” domain, and the Fellows shared living quarters where they would eat, sleep, and essentially “live” over 15 days. One would often wake up to the sight of their colleagues on video calls with their children. With this increased integration of the realms comes increased integration of the two selves- the home self and the work self.
In Tamil Nadu, females spend 28.68 hours a week on a variety of domestic activities, including but not limited to cooking, childcare, shopping and cleaning, while males spend only 2.04
As far as temporal boundaries are concerned, the daily routine was structured primarily by mealtimes. Every morning at 6:30 am, tea was served. After tea, every participant would head to the cafeteria a km away for breakfast at 8:30 am. Sessions commenced at 10:00 am, and a second serving of tea was brought in at 11:30 am, with a side of snacks. Lunch was at 1:30 pm, evening tea was at 4:30 pm, and the final meal for the day was dinner at 8:30 pm. Each meal was consistently served at the same place and time, with the same menu structure. In the words of Nippert-Eng, one fell into a “pattern of workplace eating, scheduling ourselves to a routine… And patterns of how and what we eat complement dozens of other visible actions to help enact and create more continuous or discontinuous senses of who we are between realms”(pg 63).
The breaks between sessions were spent on meals, catching up on post-work, individual chats with managers, bonding with the team and preparing for a cultural event. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the fellows had to make time for home.
The boundary work we do
Those who sought to maintain a clear boundary between their work and home realms faced difficulty finding a space and time to fully embody their home self without overlapping with work. Bringing personal items, such as a keepsake from home or a phone wallpaper with a child’s photo, might prompt conversations with colleagues or roommates, which could blur the boundary between work and home. Speaking to family members during dinner or between sessions might encourage others at the table to chime in, further eroding the line between these two worlds. In such a situation, our personal boundary work leads to far more interesting choices than a typical working situation may allow for. Some may have adjusted their borders to accommodate the new normal – after having had enough strict boundaries during the lockdown. Others may have felt the need to detach from their home, even drawing a psychological boundary and preventing themselves from thinking about home to protect the sanctity of the line they’d drawn for themselves.
This was evident during the spectrum reflection as well. Despite the larger conversation around the missing vs not missing of home, a third group of Fellows chose not to share their perspectives, truly keeping their work and home realms separate.
However, the TNEF training experience still serves as a ‘third space’ by virtue of being a short residential program— it was neither a workspace nor home. In a formal workspace, the challenges of managing work-home boundaries may manifest differently but still have significant implications taking into consideration domestic and caregiving services that women take on regularly.
The extent and nature of involvement in domestic work by the females is a very crucial determinant of the extent and nature of female participation in work. The Time Use in India Survey 2019, conducted by the Ministry of Statistics, reports that the number of minutes spent every day on domestic activities in India is 25 for males and 243 for females. In Tamil Nadu, females spend 28.68 hours a week on a variety of domestic activities, including but not limited to cooking, childcare, shopping and cleaning, while males spend only 2.04.
A female employee in a bank or a call centre may struggle to balance home with work, as their job requires them to be present at all times. Teachers at school, more often than not, have to carry home their work or stay after hours to complete lesson plans, administrative work and calls to parents. Food patterns, physical boundaries, required uniforms and other artefacts all change with the nature of job. It is especially more challenging to have balance for those who primarily identify with the weakly bordered domain, home, and for those who strive to keep the two domains separate. This becomes critical when we think about the women who bear the weight of domestic and family responsibilities more than the men. For many of them, which implies a majority of TN working women, keeping the boundaries truly separate may be a luxury they can’t afford.
Thus the concept of ‘border work’ is complex and multifaceted, encompassing a range of strategies and tactics individuals use to navigate the boundaries between work and personal life. While more research is needed to fully understand the nuances of this phenomenon, it is crucial to explore these issues in different work environments and consider the impact of work-from-home arrangements in various professions and how working women of TN may benefit from such an arrangement. Through a collective commitment to breaking down these barriers, we can forge a future where TN working women experience workplaces that honour their multifaceted identities, empower them to thrive professionally and unlock a reservoir of talent.
Porvika Balasubramanian is an educator, artist, environmentalist, and lover of the written word. She currently works in the Projects Team at Madhi Foundation. This article was written under the aegis of the Centre for Education Research in India.
The Centre for Education Research in India (CERI), an initiative powered by Madhi Foundation, is a digital repository and think-tank catering to policymakers, practitioners, and academics in the education sector and the larger community to catalyse reform in the education ecosystem in India.
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