A Feminist Approach to COVID-19: Addressing the Challenges Faced by Mothers Working From Home
Updated: Aug 8, 2020
By Nicole Landa
Themes: Work, Gender, Social Justice, Policy
The novel COVID-19 virus has thrown us into a whirlwind, and for the first time in decades, the world is experiencing a global pandemic. This pandemic has taught us many lessons, some more trivial than others, such as the lesson that in order to feel content maybe we need less. Or maybe we do not need to go to restaurants, travel the world, or spend money on weekend outings to feel complete. Though important, these lessons are unparalleled in comparison to the much more sinister lesson that we are learning – that any crisis exacerbates current societal issues.
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Those who are wealthy, for instance, will not suffer as much as those who are earning minimum wage, and those groups that have been historically undervalued and not listened to are suffering the most. This is seen through countless examples, such as minimum wage workers having unfair working conditions amidst a public health crisis, indigenous populations not having adequate health care, and women being expected to be full-time caregivers as well as full-time employees with no help. While we did not need a pandemic to know these systemic inequalities and injustices, the pandemic has certainly made them more widely known. The pandemic has also made the call for alternatives to the system more mainstream.
In this article, I will specifically explore gender roles as they relate to addressing workplace inequality. I will argue that the current COVID-19 pandemic amplifies existing gender inequality, as now many women are expected to work their paid jobs from home while simultaneously engaging in full-time caregiving work to children, partners, or elderly parents. First, I will discuss the possibilities of rethinking workplaces as unionizedandeconomically democratic workspaces that can ensure mothers who now have to work from home, as well as take care of their children or other family members full-time, can have a balance without having to suffer financially. I will then explore the relationship between female oppression and capitalism. I will conclude by suggesting that if workplaces had more equitable and just gender policies, many of the issues currently faced by mothers during the pandemic, such as women not being able to find a balance between working from home and taking care of their children who are out of school, may be alleviated.
Though there is an illusion that working from home is a relaxing excuse to work in pajamas, many mothers have been hit with an unprecedented amount of stress. Instead of having the ability to leave their home to be a paid worker, they have to balance being both a mother and an employee at home.
How Can Workplaces Better Empower Women
One of the societal issues that the pandemic has highlighted is the unfair treatment of female employees. Since schools and daycares are unable to run as a result of the pandemic, mothers are forced to be full-time caregivers of their children, in addition to all other home care activities they might have already had. On top of this, many workplaces have transitioned to working from home. Though there is an illusion that working from home is a relaxing excuse to work in pajamas, many mothers have been hit with an unprecedented amount of stress. Instead of having the ability to leave their home to be a paid worker, they have to balance being both a mother and an employee at home.
Both the child, as well as the workplace, do not understand that the woman in question has other responsibilities and identities, and both the employer and child expect one hundred percent effort and presence from the mother. These concerns may bring forth questions such as, “Why can’t the father help split the childcare responsibility? Isn’t the burden on both parents”? To answer that question, a few factors must be addressed. Firstly, not every mother has a partner to split childcare responsibilities with. Second, as the western, heteronormative patriarchal world has always expected that the mother be the primary caregiver of a child, a pandemic does not change that dominant worldview.
Official labour legislation and policy, as well as workplace practices are skewed against women. While the standard time that a man can take paternal leave in Canada is 35 weeks and that women can take is 61 weeks for maternal leave, this has been established not on benign terms but rather on the employment value placed on each gender by a system biased against women. Creating a fairer and more equitable workplace where both male and female employees are valued and heard is not as daunting of a task as it may seem, as these things can be achieved through specific policy changes. Sexism in the workplace, on the other hand, is more subtle and harder to change and can begin with things that seem trivial, such as dress codes. Women are more likely to be accused of dress code violations because women’s bodies are automatically deemed hyper-sexual (Hing et all., 2015). Moreover, women are questioned and villainized more than their male counterparts in regards to taking time off work for personal matters (Hing et all., 2015).
Further, many of the reasons that men are able to succeed more in the workplace are because many of the contracts that stipulate how one can get a raise are essentially sexist. For example, many benefits and raises stipulate that an employee must have adequate “face time” by working directly from the office (Hing et al., 2015). This, of course, is much easier for a man to achieve, who is able to work long hours in the office, as opposed to a mother who has other responsibilities.
Something important to note is that sexism in the workplace has become not only much more subtle, but it has put on a mask of “benevolence.” “Hostile sexism involves antipathy toward, and negative stereotypes about, agentic women. In contrast, benevolent sexism involves positive but paternalistic views of women as highly communal” (Hing et all., 2015). Many employers will choose to give their female employees an abundance of maternal leave time, only for her to come back to the office demoted. The discourse around sexism in the workplace has evolved past solely assessing hostile sexism, which can be classified by things such as sexual harassment and offensive misogynist jokes.
In order to ensure an environment where female employees can be empowered, a start would be to legislate that women must be represented in leadership and executive positions, to have someone who can empathize with the female experience when making organizational decisions. Second, guaranteeing that workplaces be genuinely conducive to equality necessarily means that they must be unionized (Malleson, 2014). This is because each individual female employee, taking into account that all women have vastly different experiences and needs based on their intersectional identities, can come forward and advocate for themselves without fearing negative repercussions when a union is present. With unions, women would be able to express and plan for that while having children at home, she needs fewer working from home hours, and she should not have to suffer for these factors that she cannot control financially. One of Canada’s major unions, UNIFOR, has created local women’s committees within unions, where women can create associations and legislative changes for the larger union. This ensures that all women are heard. UNIFOR’s statement on the need for these committees is to:
encourage more women to participate in union activities and seek out and support women to run for elected positions. Ensure that pay equity, employment equity, anti-harassment policies and the duty to accommodate are union priorities and ensure that members, activists and leaders understand their importance and the basics of how they work. Participate in all National Union women’s and human rights campaigns. Provide support to existing leadership by offering information on equity issues and opportunities to learn and do more” (Unifor, Forming a Local Women’s Committee)
As well, UNIFOR outlines the following important point:
Occasionally, members in the local will be resistant to the Women’s Committee…. They may say, “Where’s the men’s committee?” In most of our workplaces, men make up the majority of the committees and leadership positions. Their voices and concerns are part of the conversation. Even in workplaces where women are the majority, it is useful to have a Woman’s Committee that focusses specifically on women’s equality. Women still, on average, earn less than men; we are still responsible for a more significant portion of child/family/home work; we are still more likely to be victims of violence; we are still less likely to be in positions of leadership and power than men in most institutions, from our unions to Parliament, etc. Until these barriers to equality are removed, women require spaces to discuss, analyze and organize toward solutions. (Unifor, Forming a Local Women’s Committee)
It is sentiments like these that prove which companies are truly committed to equality among the genders, and refuse to continue a viscous cycle of female disempowerment in the workplace.
Only Women Can Decide for Other Women
The reason that many marginalized groups do not have power is because they do not have someone with a shared experience in power. When predominantly White, heterosexual, able-bodied men are making decisions for the majority of people who do not fit those categories, it is no surprise that many groups will be left powerless. In addition to women having more power within their respective workplaces, it is also important to ensure that elected governments that are supposed to serve all citizens ensure that all marginalized groups, including women, have a say in government affairs and policymaking. One of the ways that this could be achieved, for instance, is through participatory budgeting.
Tom Malleson describes in the article Economic Democracy in the 21st Century that participatory budgeting is one of the most reliable ways to ensure that everyone’s needs are heard and met, because communities can come together and deliberate about what is most important to them. In participatory budgeting, the entire community – all those affected by the policies and budget allocations of say a municipality or locale – sit at the same table and decide collectively and democratically what social priorities and projects should be funded and where the funding should be allocated in an open and transparent process.
Such a process would have deep and positive community impacts in deciding on how to attend to contemporary issues. For example, if Torontonians could come together and decide that the government should stop funding the Toronto Police Department, and instead provide further subsidies for those who need it most, including women who cannot work full-time from home while her child does not have proper care, women would not have to decide whether they need to sacrifice their mothering or working duties. Such a process could also be applied to deciding on which work organizations would receive certain tax incentives or other benefits should they meet (or not meet) certain gender equality or compensation thresholds decided on by the community where those businesses are located.
Capitalism Hurts Women
Though implementing policies that can directly help women is a way of slowly loosening the grip of the patriarchy, it is important to note that patriarchy and capitalism are deeply connected, as each propagates the other. Capitalism, at its core, inherently hurts minorities and marginalized communities, especially women. This is because it was designed to benefit wealthy, childless (or in practice childcare-free), White men (Comane, 2010). Capitalism relies on a false narrative that those who are willing to work extra hard, disregard any and all outside stressors, and dedicate their lives to capital gain can succeed. In this case, success is solely measured by wealth, and the only people who can consistently win in this system are men.
An example of this is maternity leave. Having fair and equal maternity and paternity leave should not be luxuries created by the Western world; they are needed for survival (Gibson-Graham, 2018). For decades, women have been forced to choose between being mothers and being successful in their careers. This is a direct attack on female biology, and it disadvantages mothers. This can be described as a “Motherhood Penalty,” where mothers often receive a lesser pay because they were unable to be physically present in the office as much as their non-mother counterparts. As well, mothers may not be able to perform as well as a result of the exhaustion they may feel in not being able to adequately rest after work, and mothers are discriminated against because there is a belief that since they chose to become a mother, they should not get any “special treatment” or aid (Correll et al., 2007).
Further building on the idea that capitalism inherently hurts women, capitalism and patriarchy in combination have divided society and ascribed roles within society, as “masculine” and “feminine.” In this case, work such as housework and caregiving is seen as feminine, and belonging to the private sphere. Working in the public sphere, however, is seen as “masculine” (Comane, 2010). Under capitalism, especially under the exacerbated confines of a pandemic, women who are not in a top-earning bracket will always have to make a sacrifice if they are both mothers and wage earners, unless there are measures in places such as fair paid leave days, equitable maternity and paternity leave times and pay, participatory budgeting and policymaking, and more unionized workplaces to ensure a more robust and long-term leveling of the playing field.
Currently, it is mainly those women who are in a top-earning bracket that can afford to have around-the-clock help with balancing the role of mothering and working. With the current pandemic, children being out of school did not create a new problem for mothers. Mothers always had to somehow balance being a good mother and a good employee. The pandemic simply made this paradox more vivid and made those who are not mothers more sympathetic to the difficulty of finding this balance.
Comane, Denise. "How Patriarchy and Capitalism Combine to Aggravate the Oppression of Women." Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt. Retrieved from https://www.cadtm.org/How-Patriarchy-and-Capitalism-Combine-to-Aggravate-the-Oppression-of-Women
Correll, Shelley J., et al. "Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?" American Journal of Sociology, vol. 112, no. 5, Mar. 2007. Retrieved from https://sociology.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj9501/f/publications/getting_a_job-_is_there_a_motherhood_penalty.pdf
Gibson-Graham, J.K. "Cultivating Community Economies." The Next System Project. Retrieved from https://www.communityeconomies.org/publications/popular-writing/cultivating-community-economies
Malleson, Tom. "Economic democracy in the 21st Century." OpenDemocracy, 15 Aug. 2014. Retrieved from https://thenextsystem.org/cultivating-community-economies
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Unifor. Forming a Local Union Women’s Committee. Retrieved from https://www.unifor.org/sites/default/files/documents/document/forming_a_local_union_womens_committee_en.pdf