New Delhi CNN Business  — 

The coronavirus pandemic appears to have given an unexpected boost to a small — but influential — cohort of India’s working women.

While the economy has been battered by Covid-19, educated women in middle-to-senior positions have seen job opportunities rise in the last year, recruiters in the country told CNN Business.

They attribute the shift to the trend of working from home that many companies have embraced during the pandemic.

“‘Flexible’ used to be a bad word for recruiters,” said Neha Bagaria, founder of online jobs platform JobsForHer. “It really took the pandemic to gain an acceptance for work from home roles.”

A recent survey by her team of more than 300 companies in India found that women accounted for 43% of middle-to-senior management roles in 2020, a jump of more than 20 percentage points from the previous year.

That flexibility might not last forever, however, as many companies around the world roll out plans to return their workers to the office, at least part time.

But the uptick noted by JobsForHer and others has given companies an insight into the policies that might work should they want to encourage gender diversity.

An office building in the Electronic City area of Bengaluru, India, on Friday, March 5, 2021.

Stay remote, stay productive

Even though India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and its women are more educated than ever before, they aren’t joining the workforce. According to the World Bank, women comprised just over 20% of India’s total labor force in 2019, down from about 26% in 2005. In the United States, that number was about 46% in 2019.

From restrictive cultural norms to office harassment, there are many reasons why highly skilled Indian women might choose to stay at home.

But over the last decade, the government and corporations have been trying to encourage more women to join the workforce.

In 2013, India’s market regular mandated all publicly traded companies to appoint at least one woman to their boards of directors. That marked one of the first times an emerging country has implemented gender quotas to encourage diversity, according to the Harvard Business School Review.

Since 2017, the country has also mandated 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, which is more than richer countries such as the United States or Japan.

Despite those efforts, the participation of women in the workforce remains dismal.

The pandemic, however, has shown employers that remote work can be just as effective as being in the office. This policy has also encouraged more women to re-enter the job market after taking a break because of caregiving responsibilities, among other reasons, recruiters said.

“In 2021, the number of women actively exploring job opportunities has gone up by 89% vis-a-vis 2020,” Aditya Mishra, founder of Ciel HR Services, told CNN Business, based on an analysis of his staffing agency’s data on middle and senior level hiring.

A service employee working in Delhi and living in Noida works from home.

“Even though there has been a muted growth in the job market, we observed that companies across sectors have gone on to hire 21% more women than the previous year,” Mishra added.

Overall, unemployment numbers in Asia’s third largest economy remain high due to the pandemic-related slowdown, which pushed the country briefly into recession last year.

Some companies launched initiatives designed to attract women who want to work remotely. Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, rolled out a program this year to hire women for entry level jobs — in areas ranging from software to finance — from small towns in India that wouldn’t require them to relocate — even after the pandemic subsides.

“This was a talent pool we did not have access to earlier,” said Shalini Nataraj, the global head of human resources for Maersk’s Global Service Centre.

The company registered an 11-percentage-point increase in the number of women leaders hired in India this year from 2019, she said. The firm also recorded a spike in applications from women last year, after it started asking its women employees to draft job descriptions.

However, Nataraj admitted that the company still has to do more to address the gender pay gap.

Maersk did not have further data on the topic. But according to a 2018 survey published by the career website Monster, India’s overall gender pay gap was 22.5% that year.

Still a long way to go

While a sliver of educated women in India have found more job opportunities, the majority of working women — especially those lower down the economic ladder — were hit hard by last year’s economic turmoil.

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab has been studying the impact of the pandemic on workers from some of India’s poorest states. In a report on young migrant workers from the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, the researchers found that Covid-19 pushed men out of salaried work, and women out of the workforce entirely.

“They [women] had this one chance of working. Now they are back home with their families and being pushed to get married,” Clément Imbert, associate professor of economics at the University of Warwick and one of the researchers, told CNN Business.

People walk along a platform at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus train station during a lockdown in Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021.

Their experience mirrors stories from other countries. In America, Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on working women, who lost more jobs than men. For those who have stayed employed, the additional burden of domestic duties and childcare has led to an enormous amount of stress.

Some Indian working women are luckier in this respect than their western counterparts, according to Bagaria of JobsForHer.

“Women in India have more family support,” she said.

Many Indians live in extended families with in-laws, or parents, and have more relatives to help look after children. It is also cheaper to hire live-in domestic workers in the country than it is in the West.

As India’s economy slowly opens up, most large organizations are expected to experiment with hybrid work models, recruiters said, echoing a trend that has also been seen in richer countries. This may again lead to less flexibility, in terms of location, for women in senior roles. Government authorities and companies in the southern state of Telangana, an IT hub, have already started encouraging workers to return to offices.

While companies have seen the benefits of gender diversity at the middle and top, “nobody is hiring a CEO by saying, ‘Never come to my main office,’” said Ashutosh Khanna, senior client partner at management consulting firm Korn Ferry. “They will eventually have to make the move.”

For now, women are enjoying the wiggle room they have. Bhuvana Subramanyan was hired by staffing company Randstad India as chief marketing officer last August, after an entirely virtual interview process. Even with her new responsibilities, she said she still has time for “simple pleasures,” such as daily yoga practice.

“I am not getting stuck in traffic jams anymore,” the Bengaluru resident told CNN Business. The southern Indian city is notorious for its painfully gridlocked roads, which have taken a horrifying toll on productivity and health of workers.

Apart from more “me-time,” Subramanyan, 47, said work-from-home during the pandemic has been empowering for women employees.

“Virtual calls have democratized conversations,” she said. ” You now have the opportunity to unmute yourself and talk.”