One of the notorious issues working women face is the dreaded work-life balance. In the Nordic countries where portfolio careers with multiple employments (in various projects, to varying degrees, over diverse timespans) is a norm among academics and researchers during the early and middle years of their careers, it is, indeed, often not only the work-life balance that is at issue but also the work-work balance, i.e. the question of how to do justice to the range of demands of your various projects, not least when they are in different geographical locations and in different organizations.
Once women have children or other care responsibilities their room for manoeuvre becomes increasingly curtailed as they are – even in the Nordic countries – largely left to pick up the domestic pieces. Our research has shown that women in tech-driven careers are more likely to sustain such careers, indeed embark on them, if they have a partner with regular predictable hours who can work from home and effectively take up both house and care work. Where this is not the case, women struggle and can end up leaving academe (if they have worked as researchers there) for a less onerous role in the private sector where they undertake research but are not required also to publish, apply for funding etc.
Shani Orgad’s (2019) Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality (Columbia UP) explores why women in high-powered careers in London end up staying at home to look after their children and what the effects of this are. Orgad interviewed 35 highly educated career women who decided to become stay-at-home mothers, and 5 men. Challenging ‘preference’ and choice feminist views of women supposedly choosing to stay at home, this volume tells a story of impossible work demands (the idea of ‘balance’ is plainly laughable), partners who are largely absent due to their own impossible work demands, and relentless pressures to be everything: high-flying career woman and super-mom. Men are not confronted with any such demands; for them the work-life imbalance in favour of work remains largely unquestioned.
One man Orgad interviewed maintained that ‘the tech industry, particularly the social media end, has so many more female execs because their working model is much more family friendly, intrinsically is much more life friendly, they don’t have work-life separation, they have a kind of ménage and that works much better.’ (Orgad, 2019: 160) This is not, however, how the women Orgad interviewed saw it. Indeed, the covid-19 pandemic may be teaching some people that working from home – on the edges around keeping children entertained and partners from getting depressed – is often not very easy. Both female and male colleagues of mine have told me that they have got nothing done in the past 10 weeks because of being locked down at home. Those who have been productive have often been people living on their own for whom nothing much had changed in terms of their daily work routine as a function of covid.
Covid is certainly shifting the employment paradigm – work from home if you can – but it is also highlighting what the limitations of that imperative are. It may, in time, lead to a thorough review of the work cultures that many take for granted and that urgently need a serious overhaul to re-balance work and life.