Is remote working good for gender equality?

Does more remote working lead to greater gender equality or do you need more gender equality first?

woman working from home at night


Greater access to remote working for those who can work remotely is often associated with more gender equality, but it can depend on what comes first: more equal relationships or more remote working.

It is true that being able to work from home at least some of the week can make it all possible if you have children. Without it, mums – and it is still mums generally – often end up being exhausted or look at other options such as working more locally [usually on less pay and doing something that doesn’t stretch them]] or setting up their own business. Just in case of school or nursery emergencies. Being hours away if your child has a serious fall or starts throwing up is stressful if you don’t have several back-up plans. I recall sitting on my phone – which was on vibrate – in a meeting which couldn’t be cancelled in fear that one of my children would get swine flu.

Of course, it should be all about parents sharing stuff, but as Covid has shown, it is still mums who generally carry the greatest burden of childcare even when both parents are working from home.

Covid has normalised remote working to some extent. The argument is that if more men do it women’s careers are less likely to be penalised for it. They won’t be sidelined or forgotten. It could open up good quality jobs with career pathways – the kind of jobs that are sometimes not available locally, depending on where you live – to more people generally, addressing issues of geographical inequality. This has been happening in the US where those working remotely in more rural or remote villages have been paid a premium to do so as it is part of social regeneration. The danger is that it could all go the other way with bonuses for office workers and pay cuts for remote workers as some employers seek to entice people back to the office. That would open up greater inequality and, if women are the most likely to work from home because of caring responsibilities, that could impact the gender pay gap.

Another issue, however, is what people do when they are working from home. As stated, Covid has shown women were more likely to do childcare. I’d be interested in a study in normal times showing what parents do when managing working from home. I know dads who worked from home pre-pandemic who locked themselves away all day with only a break for lunch or going for a jog or some such while the women I know tend to use any break to do ‘logistics’, forward planning for birthdays, dress-up days in school and so forth. In our house, my partner has nabbed the bedroom to work in, completely removed from the rest of the family. I work in the living room so, when the kids come home or are off sick, I am right there in the centre. I have to admit that I like it that way. I hear about their day, I know what is going on, I can be around for chats.

In that latter part of a working day – the early evening hours – bearing in mind that there is no firm end to my working day [I think it’s officially called The Merge] – I may be helping one daughter with her UCAS form or another with her job application, ordering more headphones for my son, doing an emergency wash of the PE kit, etc, etc. I don’t tend to see my partner doing this stuff – unless specifically requested – because it is assumed – and I take full responsibility here – that I do it. I have always done it, in part because I know the system in the UK [for instance, UCAS] and he is Spanish. I doubt this is unusual, however.

I know that this is passing down an unequal model to my children. Is it maternal gatekeeping? I don’t know. I don’t see my partner demanding to do this stuff. It has to be a two-way thing surely. Evolution is a very slow thing. Once you get into a certain pattern it can be hard to shift it and every day is so overfilled with stuff that it is easier not to. Getting through each day is a success in itself. Even more so now with rising bills and all the multiple anxieties over the future. There can be, I think, both a vision for how things should be, which we are working towards, and a realisation of how they still are, but both impinge on each other and life often gets in the way.

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