Does working from home exacerbate gender inequalities?

In the pandemic, disrupted working and home lives are converging. Emily Yarrow and Julie Davies wonder if working from home might make gender inequalities even worse

In the Covid-19 pandemic, disrupted working and home lives are converging.

The pattern in China and South Korea has been for women to shoulder the household impacts of these disruptions. Current UNESCO figures estimate that schools are closed for around 290m children globally. What is the impact of enforced quarantine on existing workplace gender inequalities for women?

Recent research from the ILO indicates that women undertake most care work. The World Economic forum also warns of greater strain on women as primary care givers during the current pandemic than on men. In increasing domestic isolation, what are the implications for women? Will men who are also stuck working from home (WFH) in the current crisis provide more childcare? Or will they expect their non-commuting female partners and colleagues to be even more productive?

Employers’ failure to appreciate women’s (and other carers’) work intensification as home and work blur during this medical, economic, and social crisis can result in considerable distress and disadvantage – for self-isolating working mothers in particular.

Productivity and multi-tasking

Clearly, stay-at-home orders can result in a range of effects from positive reductions in “time poverty” that the slow movement advocates, to the dark sides or depression for women employees with young children. There is news of increased social isolation raising cases of domestic violence during the COVID-19 outbreak – single parents who are free-lancers and sick or with sick children are especially vulnerable as they grapple with childcare, on-line meetings, financial, and many other worries.

In the UK university sector, academics are assessed on their Research Excellence Framework (REF) outputs every seven years or so. “REF-able” publications are valuable commodities for institutions and individuals. This system favours an idealised notion of the “unencumbered scholar” who can dedicate all their time to scholarship.

We already know that research evaluation actively contributes to gender inequality. Recently, Twitter has been alive with speculation about REF being postponed. It seems that some academics expect homeworking will raise REF “productivity” and “outputs.” This disregards parents’ additional distractions with home schooling, 24/7 child and other caring responsibilities amidst an epidemic of fear.

Reasons to be cheerful

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argued that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.” In 2016, Obama also argued that “if you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born. … You’d choose right now”. As we are now forced to stay at home, we are seeing many acts of kindness during the pandemic such as nationalcareforce.co.uk for volunteers which supports vulnerable members of society.

Virtual co-working and mutual support with contact buddies for those living alone, may be helped by our rapid take-up of Zoom, Skype, MS Teams, WhatsApp, and other digital platforms.

The upshot is that the current pandemic might hold opportunities for more egalitarian ways of working and sharing caring responsibilities. Interestingly, homes where families are potentially isolated together may also provide opportunities for more egalitarian ways of working. It is important, however, not to make heteronormative assumptions, or indeed propagate ideas of the nuclear family or co-parenting.

We want to open up the conversation around potential further challenges that may arise for gender equality in these unprecedented times, in terms of home working, social distancing and self-isolation. As with collective intelligence and sharing knowledge about the Covid-19 scourge, there are valuable opportunities for learning about how academia and other workplaces could become more equitable.

Resilience

We need to think about how the current dire situation may hinder rather than liberate others’ ability to work. Unencumbered and well supported individuals who are enjoying working from home need to reflect on how their attitudes might entrench or attenuate existing inequalities for others who are struggling to work from home.

We can all contribute with small acts of kindness to make our increasingly virtual workplaces more inclusive, and compassionate, for individuals who face real challenges in combining home and work lives, and wellbeing. Altruism and systemic changes can help to address inherent inequalities.

We hope there will be appreciable shifts post this pandemic in understanding the multiple burdens and pleasures of household labour, childcare and workloads for working carers for whom working in the office might be far less stressful and disruptive than continuously working from home.

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