The lockdown of the UK and other countries across the world due to COVID-19 has revealed much about domestic life and work: from Indian women calling for prime minister Narendra Modi to insist men do their share of the housework, to the added childcare and home-schooling pressures disproportionately affecting women. Within academia, research outputs of female scholars have plummeted as they have taken on this increased domestic labour. What has been highlighted consistently over this period is the fragility and unsustainability of the way we organise our households: either by expecting women to carry the mental and physical load of cleaning, cooking and child raising or by outsourcing that labour to low paid workers who tend to be women. Susan Moller Okin wrote in 1989:
the old assumption of the workplace, still implicit, is that workers have wives at home (5).
That is to say that our society implicitly expects all workers to have a support system in place which will absorb the domestic labour that the office worker is unavailable for. More than 30 years later, this is still true.
What is startling is how little we really discuss the problem: the age-old issue of ‘having it all’ where women are expected to juggle careers and housework is still alive and well. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis has magnified the pressure to sustain work and childcare with a reduced capacity to outsource these labours. Okin’s ‘wife at home’ represents a kind of invisible presence. For those who can afford it, the role of ‘wife’ is really carried out often by a range of people, including nannies and cleaners. Alternatively, the work is done by working wives and mothers in the gaps between working and sleeping – carrying the mental load of household organisation all the while running on fumes. In both cases, the labour involved in running a household goes largely unacknowledged because of how society is structured.
The way we run our workplaces and schools means our society is still very much structured around a 9 to 5, 5-day week. Where the workplace has changed toward a more flexible mode of working, this has often been at the expense of the worker: the workplace continues to move towards shift-work and zero-hours contracts, whilst the digital age increasingly encourages employees to take the workplace home. One might be tempted to say that how the world of work is constructed has always been inhospitable to working mothers. But we could equally reformulate it to say that current working arrangements are unhelpful to ALL parents who want to split their domestic work equally and fairly while allowing all the adults in the family the opportunity to have a fulfilling career.
The boundary between work and home has always been unstable, but since lockdowns were enforced and working from home is now a longer-term prospect for many, it has become increasingly so. With the domestic support systems of schools removed, the invisible presence of the ‘wife at home’ has become more tangible. The home has suddenly taken centre stage in a world which historically focused on the importance of the public sphere where important ‘male’ work is done. Paid work and housework are inhabiting the same domestic space, further blurring the boundary between the two.
In this fact there is hope. Due to the lockdown, many more people saw the possibilities inherent in remote working. Businesses saw how, in many cases, jobs that took place in an office environment could be just as efficiently (if not more efficiently) completed at home. Subsequently, some employers have felt empowered to brave the potential risks of remote work as a long-term option for their staff. While some so-called ‘flexible’ working arrangements have been exploitative, new business models based on remote working could be mutually beneficial to workers and employers. Such a restructuring of work has the potential to give many people the freedom to manage their domestic life by removing the physical boundary between workplace and home. The two became indistinct as family meals, parents conference calls and children’s homework started taking place at the same table.
However, we must be cautious here. Historically, certain professions became popular with women often because they provide the flexibility to allow them to work outside the home while also absorbing all the labour of the household. With new possibilities for remote working, we should not miss the opportunity to re-evaluate domestic labour and thereafter redistribute responsibility for it among all genders within a household. Flexibility through remote working should not mean that women end up doing the same amount of domestic labour (but just more efficiently).
In order to achieve a more equitable approach to housework we need to start talking about it openly, honestly and sympathetically. While women still do a disproportionate amount of domestic work, this isn’t always the case. Moreover, not all domestic situations can be confined to heteronormative models. I’m currently working on a research project with Dr Mike Ryder called ‘Working in the Home’. The title reflects the idea that work is work, whether it’s paid work or housework. The project suggests that we need to start conceptualising all work conducted in the home, whether domestic or professional, as part of the same continuum of work. To raise awareness about issues surrounding domestic labour and the way we negotiate it, we’re asking people to share their stories of domestic life through the Working in the Home website. We want you to join the discussion to help us learn more about our own unique experiences of housework. If we keep talking about this issue, we can gain greater understanding and start building a society that views all forms of work as important, valuable and gender-neutral.
To find out more about the project, visit the Working in the Home website.
Dr Emily Cox-Palmer-White is a researcher specialising in gender theory, science fiction and philosophy. Her research is concerned with developing new avenues in feminist philosophy using the work of Giorgio Agamben and Gilles Deleuze. Her work also explores the relationship between gender theory, posthumanism and female robots in science fiction and real-world technology. For her paper “Denuding the Gynoid: The Female Robot as Bare Life in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina,” she was awarded the Peter Nicholls Essay Prize by the Science Fiction Foundation and has also received the Support a New Scholar Award from the Science Fiction Research Association. She recently contributed a chapter to the collection Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy published by Open Court. Together to Dr Mike Ryder, she is currently working on a research project “Working in the Home” designed to raise awareness about domestic labour and gender inequality.
Moller-Okin, Susan. Justice, Gender, and the Family. Chicago University Press, 1989.