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Is Working from Home a Solution to Gender Inequality?

photo of Aliya
Jul 9 2020

Working from home, as a type of flexible working arrangement, is often suggested as a solution to work-life challenges for privileged professionals. The global spread of COVID-19 has rendered working from home key to attempting normalcy during a time of crisis. This global emergency appears to be the testing ground for working from home. Tech companies have been at the forefront of the tide, with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter declaring that employees can work from home permanently. Flexible working arrangements can be helpful in mitigating long commutes, in enabling workers feeling unwell or with urgent caregiving responsibilities to stay at home, in helping employee productivity, and boosting morale

But as a solution to gendered work-life challenges, working from home offers only a limited solution. Working from home enables workers to do both paid and unpaid work. But it does so by reinforcing the idea that caregiving is privatized and that it is primarily women’s responsibility. While working from home encourages an essential cultural shift in workplaces to view women as both caregivers and workers, it does not account for how (married) men and women value each other’s paid and unpaid work. Working from home may do little to encourage shifts toward a more gender egalitarian organization within heterosexual families. 

The home front – especially that of married, heterosexual families – remains a major stumbling block to gender equality. Although younger individuals are often seen as heralding a new frontier for gender equality, millennials continue to prefer a male-breadwinner/female-carer model when it comes to the division of labor at home, and this is particularly true for millennial men. The notion of men as breadwinners looms large, and deviations from this have adverse consequences for heterosexual marriages. Women’s promotion increases their risk of divorce, just as lack of full-time employment for menincreases their risk of divorce. One of the worst combinations for married couples’ well-being is when the husband is unemployed or temporarily employed, but the wife is employed permanently – this deviation from the male-breadwinner/female-carer norm is too much for many couples to bear. 

In a context where the home is so rife with charged and gendered notions of who is responsible for paid or unpaid work, what is the role of working from home?

In a context where the home is so rife with charged and gendered notions of who is responsible for paid or unpaid work, what is the role of working from home?

As I explain in my book, Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, working from home looks and feels very different depending on whether you are a father or a mother. I conducted over 110 interviews with college-educated, heterosexual and married unemployed fathers, unemployed mothers, their spouses, and sometimes even their children. I shadowed a few families. I wanted to understand how dual-earner married families value paid and unpaid work. As a moment of crisis, unemployment magnifies underlying norms driving individual behaviors. My study of unemployed professionals indicates that working from home is rife with challenges that reinforce gender inequality.

A Room of His Own

The unemployed professionals I interviewed, both mothers and fathers, repeated the following mantra: “Searching for a job is a full-time job!” For unemployed fathers, this meant that there was a deep understanding in their families that they needed a dedicated space from which to job-search, and that their time too needed to be protected for job-searching. Todd Baron (all names are pseudonyms), for instance, is a marketing professional in his 40s. The loss of his job, several months ago, was a blow to his young family, comprised of himself, his wife Kimmie and their three sons, all under the age of ten. As the Barons considered how to best equip Todd to find a job, they decided that a dedicated home office was a must. Todd explains,

The fact that I have a little home office and I could shut the door is good. . . So it was probably the best thing we ever did. . .  If we didn’t have that, that would suck because I’d probably be sitting at the dining room table with papers and spread out my laptop. 

The Janssons similarly told their 4-year-old daughter that “Daddy goes to work in the basement” to emphasize to her that he was not to be disturbed. Robert Jansson would come up for a quick lunch at around noon. Although his 2-year-old son was often at home during this time, he was taken care of by the full-time nanny that the Janssons employed, so that during “work hours” Robert could remain devoted to finding his next job. The Clarkes also settled into a similar routine. Sandy Clarke explains that her husband is “usually up by seven. And he has a focus: he’ll clear the decks, get ready. He’ll start to look for jobs.” Accompanying this specially demarcated space was thus a deep sense that men’s time had to be protected for job-searching.

But many wives of unemployed men were sensitive to the notion that there was an element of rhetoric to this idea of job-searching being full time. They worried that husbands used it to absolve themselves from the unpaid work of taking care of the home and children. Connie Mandel, whose husband has been unemployed for close to half a year, explains how housework remained her responsibility during this time, including when she had some very long days. “So I was coming home at 8 or 9 [at night]. They’re waiting for me to cook dinner!” Shaking her head in exasperation, she adds, “That’s what was going on at my house when my husband was unemployed. That was really bad.” 

Kimmie Baron similarly has been frustrated with Todd. “As a matter of fact, this morning he walked in while I was getting ready for school and said, ‘What can I help you do,’ and I said, ‘You’re a little late, because I just finished doing the lunches. I made all the breakfasts and I signed all the books for school. So you walked in at the most inappropriate time, because everything is done.’” In their own interviews, husbands often explained their time-use while they were unemployed and searching for jobs with a sheepish, “I guess it just doesn’t cross my mind to …” or at other times a more resolute, “I’m home to find a job; I’m not home to [do chores],” as one unemployed father put it. 

Experts suggest that these months could set us back on gains that have been made in gender equality, especially when it comes to women’s employment. 

For the families of unemployed fathers, an ersatz office space in their homes emphasized that father’s main priority should be to find paid work and that unpaid work was not their primary concern. We are seeing these understandings play out in the current pandemic. Emerging data from the U.S., U.K., and Australia shows that men are doing more unpaid work at home during this time. However, they are still doing less than women. Troublingly, women have cut back significantly on their hours spent in paid work. One study from the U.S. finds that between February and April 2020, mothers reduced their time spent on paid work by 4.5 times as much as fathers. A small proportion of mothers are even quitting jobs because of childcare obligations. Experts suggest that these months could set us back on gains that have been made in gender equality, especially when it comes to women’s employment. 

No Room of Her Own

Darlene Bach, a marketing professional like Todd, has been unemployed for several months. She too is the primary earner in her family. Her base salary (not counting the ample annual bonus she received) has exceeded her husband’s salary by about three times. Darlene’s son Parker is a gangly teenager who is particularly irritated these days, saying, “My mom’s home all the time now and she doesn’t bother getting her own desk. She just like comes into my room and just takes all this stuff off of my desk and just shoves it somewhere and then just uses it as her work desk.” Rolling his eyes dramatically, he adds, “And that’s really annoying.” 

As Parker’s observation indicates, Darlene, like other unemployed mothers I interviewed, has neither the space nor the time to devote to her job-search in the way that unemployed fathers do. Instead of a dedicated home office that was upgraded to help her search for a job, Darlene routinely did so from Parker’s room, the kitchen table or the dining room table. Other mothers described searching for jobs while they waited for children’s extra-curricular and athletic activities to finish. 

Instead of organizing their day around their job-search, mothers spent even more time on chores and patched together time for job-search here and there. Unlike unemployed fathers, families of unemployed mothers cancelled any after-school care or day care so that they could save on money while dealing with unemployment. Even chores such as grocery shopping started taking longer, explains Grace Blum, who used to earn half her household’s income: “I’ve tried to comparison shop a little. Where before it was a time thing, I don’t have time to go from this supermarket to that supermarket seeing who has the best deal on ground meat or whatever.” Shira Koffman, an unemployed lawyer, explained that because she was unemployed, she “felt like I should do more,” in terms of housework since she was no longer contributing economically. 

Working from home – searching for a job – was simply made far easier for the fathers in this study than the mothers. Fathers were able to garner demarcated spaces from where to search for jobs, as well as dedicated time to doing so. That they needed to participate in paid work was recognized as self-evident, and family resources of space and time were directed towards helping fathers. Mothers, on the other hand, had to patch together both space and time. They were seen as caregivers, and their role as workers was minimized – even though prior to their unemployment they had been successful professionals who contributed a significant amount to their total household income.

In the current pandemic, women are more likely to lose jobs than men, partly since they are situated in sectors of the economy more likely to be impacted and partly because women and people of color tend to be the first casualties when companies downsize, restructure, and lay people off. The findings from my book suggest that women’s length of unemployment is likely to be longer than for men who may lose their jobs – and not just because finding a job in a weak economy is difficult. Women who had been employed full-time may also opt for scaled back roles, potentially in part time positions. This is because time at home, and especially in the context of school and childcare center closures, will likely reinforce domestic obligations. Additionally, women who lose their jobs, more than men who do so, simply will not have the resources – such as time and space – to devote to finding a new job. These potential pathways are pathways to reversing gender equality, at least when it comes to paid and unpaid work. 

Valuing Men’s and Women’s Paid and Unpaid Work

The home is not a neutral space: it is drenched with gendered expectations of obligations that family members have to each other. 

Working from home is thus a narrow response to the issue of gender inequality in the workplace. The ability to work from home itself does not sufficiently alter the organization of paid and unpaid work in ways that will facilitate a more enduring move toward gender equality at home and work. Flexible working arrangements, like individual behavior changes, do matter. But these small tweaks are entirely inadequate for dealing effectively with a structural problem that requires a large-scale solution. 

In the absence of larger changes – such as the state-led provision of affordable childcare – these small adjustments like working from home will offer only meagre advances. In contrast, affordable childcare will enable parents, and especially mothers, to fully participate in the labor force. Social policies play a key role in catalyzing cultural shift. Although young men and women describe preferring a family structure where both husband and wife can participate in paid and unpaid work, in the absence of social support to facilitate caregiving, young men prefer a male-breadwinner/female-carer structure, while young women prefer opting out of marriage altogether. Young men in particular exhibit traditional attitudes, with some surveys indicating that these attitudes may be even more traditional when it comes to gender than the generation before them. 

Without attitudinal and accompanying behavioral shifts – which can be catalyzed through social policies – gender inequality remains out of reach. 

 

Rao is an assistant professor in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University and begins in the fall as assistant professor in the Department of Methodology at the London School of Economics. She is a former postdoctoral fellow of the Clayman Institute.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.