Work-family spillover: The complex and paradoxical role of women’s work and intimate partner violence

Smita Kumar

Intimate partner violence (IPV), or domestic violence, is often stereotyped as a problem of a lower socioeconomic class or minority group. However, the World Bank suggests that one in three women globally experience physical or sexual abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime, arguing that partner abuse is prevalent across class, culture, age, and geography.

These numbers are significantly higher for countries like India, particularly when we include verbal, psychological, and economic forms of abuse, which are often not considered abuse and thus are underreported.  It is not restricted to heterosexual relationships but extends across genders, sexualities, and different intimate relationships, hence making it a social problem.

However, the numbers among women are phenomenally high: 85% of IPV cases involve women abused by men—which calls for more focus on deeply rooted, centuries-old socio-cultural norms and values related to gender roles and marriage. It is deeply steeped in the patriarchal belief that women need to be put in place and a man has the right to do so when needed, and unsurprisingly, this belief has been echoed by both men and women. IPV service providers have been working tirelessly with communities, police departments, courts, governments, and health providers to improve the horrific conditions of those in abusive relationships.

IPV is compounded for middle- or upper-class women, who are often invisible. The societal burden of saving the marriage, children’s future, protecting the husband’s image, and family’s honor engage them in self-silencing and push back into abusive relationships. These oppressive social norms and values associated with intersectional identities of gender roles, marriage, divorce, family, class, and status only compound the vulnerability of middle-class women’s IPV context.

However, these norms need to be challenged. With the increase in middle-class women seeking employment, it is imperative to focus on work-family issues of middle-class women experiencing domestic violence, especially during pandemics where boundaries between work and family issues have been blurred female employees are trapped with their perpetrator while working from home. Thus, employers should be called upon to stop this inhuman way of being in intimate relationships actively.

The interdependent and reciprocal relationships between organizations and employees tend to have an implicit or explicit impact on social issues. Issues such as mental health, chronic illness, and child support have found a place in organizations to promote employees’ well-being. Similarly, organizations can engage in IPV and collaborate with other society members to acknowledge its prevalence, normalize conversations on IPV, and take necessary steps to support victims in their organizations.

Work has both positive and negative implications for IPV victims. Studies have shown that women’s financial independence facilitates decisions such as leaving abusive partners, but such decisions also rob women of work opportunities because of chronic health issues. Even if they can go to work, their work is impacted by emotional or physical issues.

Those who do not leave their partners are forced to leave their abusive partners or families’ jobs. A 2013 World Bank study on financial implications of IPV from nine countries showed an economic loss of up 1% to 2% of GDP. Studies across locations have also highlighted women’s productivity loss and increased use of medical or mental health services. For example, in the United States, IPV is associated with an annual productivity loss of USD 0.9 billion.

Another facet of working relationships have been observed in different studies where victims find healthy work relationships, support groups, freedom to exercise their work responsibilities, and power to make decisions, giving them a healthy sense of self, thus increasing self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence. Thus, work becomes a healthy and happy domain and a safe place. It is observed that women in IPV work hard to keep their job, which translates into success and recognition, motivating them to improve more. Work gives women a sense of autonomy and agency.

At home, these women are deprived of the power to decide clothes to wear, children’s future. Still, they may be handling a million-dollar budget, making strategies for better outcomes, and even building their teams’ careers in their organizations. These paradoxes present the powerful work domain for women in abusive relationships that provides more than financial independence.

However, work can also be detrimental to those in IPV relationships. Oppressive work structures, practices, and gendered norms at the workplace can exacerbate women’s vulnerability. Studies have shown that women are expected to display more masculine traits to succeed at work, often disenfranchising their voice and context as women—the communication gap inside the organization about IPV forces women to silence themselves towards the abusive behavior.

For example, how many women in abusive relationships can ask for work schedule or workload flexibility, as they had an abusive episode at home? The stereotype of blaming women and considered them as weak and marginalized when experiencing IPV is unruly. Sexual harassment against single women (divorced) is being observed because they are often considered easily ‘available’ to fulfill men’s sexual needs in India. This exacerbates women’s vulnerability, forcing them to engage in self-silencing and self-ostracizing to prevent more abuse or discrimination.

With organizations’ focus on increasing gender diversity, they need to understand and address the issues that come with working women. Many organizational and human resource leaders believe IPV is a personal problem and the legal implications are too risky for organizational engagement. However, when women working from home experience abuse, does IPV remain a personal problem?

Though, pandemics and emergencies only exacerbate such issues. It should be organizations’ moral responsibility to engage with IPV and stop dismissing it as a personal problem. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council argued that organizations are responsible for mitigating employees’ hardships.

Vulnerability should not be exacerbated with oppressive norms and social stigma. Every citizen has the right to lead a life with autonomy and dignity, which women in abusive relationships are robbed of. The ‘caring of employees’ needs to be redefined and should move beyond monetary or nonmonetary benefits to strengthen their autonomy and agency.

Similarly, employees’ embeddedness in the organization with reciprocal and interdependent relationships with work calls for attention. Due to COVID-19, a few organizations have started recognizing the need to be involved in IPV as employees work at home, which is an unsafe nest, and the involvement should not be confined to gender, sexual orientation, or relationship status.

Recently, Hindustan Unilever Limited has been declared the first Indian organization that has formulated a ‘discretionary well-being policy’ to help employees face domestic violence. Similarly, anecdotal evidence suggests that other organizations in India are supporting their employees in domestic violence by providing flexible work schedules and leaves, counseling support through employee assistance programs, and medical and accommodation supports.

Moreover, organizations need to provide focused and comprehensive services such as hosting a forum with stories of other survivors of IPV, normalizing conversations on IPV, implementing a zero-tolerance policy, providing legal support, and offering supervision and employee training on IPV. They need to identify work from home as a workplace in case of domestic abuse.

There is a need to acknowledge and engage in a meaningful way with community members such as domestic violence service providers, police, academics, and researchers. It needs to be built a strong foundation of trust, respect, and confidentiality to provide survivors positive and safe space.

This article is based on a presentation given in a webinar jointly organized by Gender Impact Studies Center at IMPRI, Delhi Post News and GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram on Intimate Partner Violence and paradoxical role of paid work for middle-class women in abusive relationships. It draws upon the author’s research on work-family spillover at the intersections of work and intimate partner violence.

The author is currently engaged in establishing an alliance with India Inc., IPV service providers, academia, and community organizations to stop intimate partner violence.

Smita Kumar_Intimate Partner Violence and paradoxical role of paid work for middle-class women in abusive relationships

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  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.