The public conversation this Mother’s Day looked a little different than it usually does. After the year we’ve had, breakfast in bed and flower bouquets just didn’t cut it:
If you’ve spent any time on the internet recently, I bet you’ve heard about the terrible year parents—and moms in particular—have had. Women with young kids left (/were pushed out of) the workforce in record numbers, took on the lion’s share of new childcare duties such as managing kids’ online schooling, and carried a heavy emotional load that left many ready to let out a primal scream by the pandemic’s one-year mark.
As society slowly reopens, we’re at an important crossroads. Even as I type, scholars and pundits are heatedly debating whether the past year set the fight for gender equity back decades, or whether pandemic-induced changes could actually usher in new, more pro-family ways of working and parenting.
These are big, complex questions, and it’s too early to tell for sure which way things will go. To illustrate that complexity, I thought it would be helpful to walk you through my thinking on just one aspect of post-pandemic life: the rise of remote and hybrid remote/in-person work options. Tl;dr: I think the upside potential here is greater than the downside risks, but the impact of this development on gender equity will depend a lot on which women you’re looking at, and the specifics of how new workplace policies are implemented.
Many high-profile employers have announced that they will no longer require employees to be in-office five days per week. Some are going fully remote, and many others are offering employees considerable freedom to choose whether, and how often, they come in. On its face, this development is a feminist dream come true. The expectation of 40+ pre-specified hours per week in the office is a relic of the male-breadwinner era. So long as one parent’s full-time job was to care for the kids and home, the mismatch between work calendars and school holidays/dentist appointments/choral recitals/stomach flus wasn’t a huge deal. If dad was working, mom could cover. But when two parents are in the workforce, the inflexibility of work hours and location becomes a scheduling nightmare and a significant source of stress for many families.
Work-family scholars have long argued that increased flexibility and autonomy over our paid work will benefit parents (and, let’s be clear, the rest of us, too) by making it easier to balance work and life. Because women in particular tend to be on the hook for childcare, greater workplace flexibility could also reduce the numbers of women who are pushed out of the paid workforce because they can’t afford childcare or aren’t able to show up for their children in the ways they would like. But! (There’s always a but, isn’t there?) I have three reservations - not dealbreakers, per se, just ~things to keep in mind.~
Caveat number one is that the remote-work option will not be available to all, or even most, employees. Those of us in the knowledge work sector sometimes forget that many jobs require more than a laptop and an internet connection. Nurses, home health aides, hairdressers, and crossing guards cannot work from home, no matter how much they would like to. With plenty of exceptions (see: surgeons, call-center representatives), the option to work from home will be unequally distributed by class, race, and immigrant status. Low-income women and women of color will likely continue to have less control over where and when they work by virtue of their overrepresentation in the service economy and in low-wage, precarious work. Even if remote work turns out to be a gender equality boon, it’s critical that we continue to fight for a whole suite of policies, like paid parental leave, that will benefit women of all classes/races/etc. rather than a privileged few.
A second consideration dampening my enthusiasm for the rise of remote work is that there are many open questions regarding how the new policies will be implemented. Early reports indicate that many employers will be giving workers considerable latitude to set their own work-from-home schedules, rather than mandating a certain ratio of in-person to at-home time. While this will maximize employee flexibility, total open-endedness may inadvertently increase gender inequality.
Pre-pandemic, we saw that remote workers sometimes fared worse than their in-office co-workers on metrics like promotions and raises (to be fair, the evidence is mixed, and as WFH becomes more popular the dynamics will likely shift). It’s harder to demonstrate commitment, build rapport with colleagues, and stay abreast of office politics when you aren’t actually in the office. When everybody is at home, this is a moot point. But when you have a mix of remote and in-person employees, there’s a risk that the in-person folks will surge ahead while the at-home folks fall behind.
If men and women are equally distributed across the at-home and in-office groups, this isn’t a gender equity problem, per se. But some early indicators suggest that women are more interested than men in the at-home option. If these stated preferences translate to actual behaviors come this September, we may see gender gaps widen.
Why are women more interested in working from home? This brings me to my third reservation re: the rise of remote work. I suspect that the at-home option is disproportionately appealing to women in part because the stress of making work and family fit together disproportionately falls on women. If remote work options make it possible for women who would otherwise drop out to stay in the workforce, that’s excellent. But if remote work options make it possible for women to continue bearing the brunt of household labor, because “she’s at home anyway; why can’t she do the laundry in between calls?”—well, that’s less excellent.
By this point, I’ve likely provided you with way more answers than questions, but I’m not (that) sorry. There’s a black-and-white tendency in a lot of public discourse: this is the source of all our problems; that is the solution to all our problems; etc. In reality, most policy developments fall somewhere in between. The devil’s in the details, as they say. Remote work is unlikely to solve all of our problems, because it will be unavailable to many women and because it might perpetuate the expectation that women are responsible for managing the home. It might even create new problems, if organizations aren’t thoughtful in exactly how the new policies are implemented. Does that mean it’s a bad idea? Nope! I’m cautiously optimistic that eventually we’ll be able to find a way around some of these concerns. But only time will tell.
For Your Consideration: I’m all about reducing cognitive load, and one of my favorite apps for doing just that is Planta. You enter all of your house plants into the app and get a reminder when it’s time to water them, with watering schedules customized to the pot type, your local climate, etc. There’s a bit of up-front work required to put in all your plant info, but once that’s done, plant care takes up very little of your brain space.
Fun stuff: While I definitely do not have a made-for-radio voice, I’ve nevertheless enjoyed doing some radio interviews over the past month. If you’re interested, you can find the recordings here (listener call-ins!) and here (fun New Zealand accents!).
‘til next week,