As we start to return to normalcy, COVID-19 has many people looking at making working from home more permanent. But are pyjama bottoms and Zoom conferences a future that will really work for everyone? (Image source: Institute of Community Directors Australia)
By Mallory Bradley | @malbradley_
Home offices are beginning to revert back into dining rooms and spare bedrooms as we slowly move towards something resembling the pre-COVID-19 normal.
But it seems that going back to business as usual isn’t on everyone’s mind, with more and more of the workforce pushing for working from home to become permanent.
While students have been eager to get back to their classrooms and ditch online learning, those working from home are more than happy to continue doing so.
A survey of Australians who have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 86 per cent want to continue in this setting, and 22 per cent have been given this option going forward.
Similarly, in the United States 60 per cent would like to continue working from home after the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
This has raised questions about how different workplaces could look for Australians post-COVID-19, but also about who these changes really suit.
The Washington Post reported that female academics, only six weeks into widespread quarantining, were submitting less papers than ever before, to such a degree that it could derail their careers.
Their male counterparts, however, are submitting up to 50 per cent more than before COVID-19.
For them, the time at home has given them a period to just focus solely on writing and submitting their work.
While female academics are in the same boat, working from home during quarantines, when comparing paper submissions from January to April within the field of astrophysics a productivity loss of up to 50 per cent is not a trend seen in male submissions.
This appears to be widely applicable. Journals that generally publish equal amounts of papers from men and women are suddenly publishing works from marginally more male authors than female.
The productivity gap during this time has the potential to see women pushed aside for career progression while their male colleagues set a baseline of what can be achieved during this time in isolation.
The rhetoric that arises here is that while everyone is at home, men just manage to ‘find a way’ to produce more academic work, but is that really the case?
Or is it that heteronormative dynamics allow fathers to shut themselves into an office while mothers need to work around childcare, cooking and cleaning, juggling a laptop in one hand and a child in the other?
The productivity gap traces back to gender roles within home life, which leads to the undercurrent that ultimately the work of women is less valid and important to that of men.
This is not new to this pandemic, but the gap in productivity between men and women while working from home is also evidenced through parental leave.
A 2016 study found that ‘stop the tenure clock’ policies offered to give academics on track for tenure an extra year before evaluation as many colleges see very different uses between men and women in economics.
Women tend to use this time to recover physically and mentally from childbirth and to focus on childrearing, often including breastfeeding schedules.
However, men use this time to write and submit articles, becoming more likely to publish in the top five economic journals after the introduction of these policies.
It is also mirrored in the difference of career progression after having children between men and women.
A study by researchers at the University of Bristol and the University of Essex found that in the five years after childbirth 26 per cent of men have been promoted or moved on to a better job, compared to 13 per cent of women.
It also found that mothers who leave employment following childbirth are three times more likely to return to a lower paid or responsibility role than those who don’t.
However, it also found that, for women only, staying with the same employer has a lower risk of downward occupational mobility, but also lower chances of career progression.
In terms of labour force participation, in 2019 60.7 per cent of women, which is significantly lower than the 71 per cent of men are in the Australian workforce.
This gap increases when looking at parents of dependent children aged 0-5.
According to the ABS in 2019 only 65 per cent of women with a child in this age group participate in the labour force, compared to the 95 per cent of men in the same position.
However, as the percentage of women in the workforce has risen, the distribution of domestic unpaid labour men and women contribute has not changed accordingly.
An analysis commissioned by the Victorian Government’s Office for Women found that women spend, on average, 32.2 hours a week performing unpaid work and care, compared to the 19.8 hours by their male counterparts.
In 2017-18 the unpaid work and care in Victoria was valued at $206.25 billion, with the average female providing 1.6 times more value than the average male, totalling $39 662 for this period.
When accounting for these hours, along with hours contributed to the paid labour force, which has higher male participation, women spend an average of 1.4 additional working months’ time on work from both spheres combined.
This all illustrates the domestic expectations of women to take on the primary childcare and home maintenance roles within their families.
Kate Bullen-Casanova, Author and Founder of Future Feminists, where she creates and complies resources for parents and educators to approach intersectional feminism with children, had been working from home long before COVID-19 and more than understands the difficulty of being productive at home.
“I think my attitude has certainly improved but I used to find it very difficult to sit down and allow myself to focus on my burgeoning business when there was laundry or housework to do. It felt self-indulgent. Now I know I have to make the most of my kid-free time,” Ms Bullen-Casanova explained.
Between her day a week working as an Early Childhood Educator and her two young children’s kinder and day care schedule, she is left with only one full day to work at home without them.
“It’s tricky because not only is this just not enough time, but in order to maintain my Future Feminists business I really need to be working and engaging 7 days per week,” she explained.
Through Future Feminists she endeavours to empower families and educators to work together for social justice to raise socially aware and kind children without the restrictions of patriarchal expectations and gender roles.
“There is no perfect way to work and study from home while looking after kids. There’s a lot of snatched moments on the computer while the children watch cartoons. A lot of guilt about not doing anything right, not being the best businessperson or the best mum. There’s always compromises.”
Balance in the distribution of domestic labour has always been important in the Bullen-Casanova household, and that hasn’t changed.
“I think we’ve worked really hard to have a good balance throughout the entire time we’ve lived together but at the moment I definitely find my husband doing more because he’s home more,” she said.
“He’s able to get the kitchen clean before his long commute upstairs to the spare room and he can clean the bathrooms on his lunch break.”
For her family, having her partner also working from home due to COVID-19 has been ideal, especially as without the freedom to venture out and to playgrounds the domestic labour at home has increased the challenge of finding things to do with kids at home.
In fact, he is unlikely to ever return to the office full time; an arrangement that works better for them and their daily productivity, while giving them more time to spend together.
There are always going to be careers and industries that cannot be done from a distance, and while areas such as teaching, nursing and aged care employ more women than men, women are far outnumbered by men in manual trades.
There are also factors outside of just gender to consider when looking at working from home, too.
For disabled people, the changes made during the pandemic have shown just how many positions can be done from home.
This can not only set a precedent to make more positions and careers accessible but can serve as the beginning of a transition to working from home more often or full-time post-pandemic
Working from home poses unique difficulties for black people, too.
Studies have shown that individuals who ‘resume whitening’—downplaying their race in job applications—are more likely to be seen as ‘professional’ and be hired.
This ‘toning down’ of racial identity, or ‘code-switching’ is a tool commonly used by black people to navigate interracial interactions and downplay their race to increase perceptions of professionalism by their white co-workers and higher-ups.
This has been linked to extreme burn-out, and having the lines between work and private life blurred by video conferencing and having to down-play racial identity within a safe space while working from home has huge potential to be damaging.
While there are definitely more roadblocks for women, compared to men, making working from home doable is not an impossibility.
With women progressing in the workforce, this is another issue that is not for women to fight on their own. It requires the dissection of gender roles in our household and the valuing of all work as equal.
Whether children are a factor or not, domestic labour requires recognition as valid work and a shared responsibility to ensure that career success from home is achievable for everyone.