The place for women’s work is in the kitchen? The location of work during the COVID-19 pandemic & beyond

17th March 2021

Author: Oliver Mallett (Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK)

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented shift towards full-time homebased work for a significant proportion of the workforce. With this homebased working ‘experiment’ hailed as a success by many organisations and offering opportunities for long sought-after flexibility, it seems likely that greater degrees of homeworking will remain across the board. It is inevitable that such radical changes to the organisation of work will impact the future relationship between the labour process and the domestic sphere.

However, in early studies of the wider context in which this homebased working experiment is being conducted, there have been worrying signs of unequal impacts. In the UK, women are more likely to have lost their jobs in the early stages of the crisis. The crisis has had a significant impact on service occupations, such as hospitality, that employ greater proportions of women, with effects particularly severe for single mothers. Those women remaining in work are more likely to be balancing this with childcare, especially during periods of school closure, leading to ‘a risk of reversing some of the progress made in narrowing the gender wage gap over recent decades’. Further, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee found that government support initiatives overlooked labour market and caring inequalities faced by women and that plans for future recovery and investment are skewed towards male-dominated sectors.

Since May 2020, our research, funded by UK Research and Innovation, has been using surveys and repeat interviews to study in-depth the experiences of home-based workers across the UK. Our most recent survey was conducted in January and February 2021, when many people worked from home amidst the challenges of the latest nationwide lockdown. One of the prominent themes in this survey of 1000 home-based workers highlighted the disproportionate impact of these circumstances on women.

Gender & homebased working

Echoing the results of the previous survey we conducted in June-July 2020 and interviews with a panel of 80 homebased workers, our latest survey identified important differences in the experience of homebased working between men and women. Women were found to be significantly more likely to undertake all or a majority of domestic chores and caring responsibilities in their households, reproducing and reinforcing gender roles.

In our interviews, many interviewees talk about the benefits of having been able to spend more time with family during the crisis. However, for some there may be additional factors that determine the impacts of additional domestic and childcare responsibilities. For example, women in our survey were less likely to report being adequately supported by their employer in adapting their homebased working environment. Importantly, our surveys have also found that men are more likely to have a dedicated homeworking space. In practice, this means that men are more likely to be working at a desk in a spare room while women are more likely to be at a dining room or kitchen table. The lack of a dedicated homeworking space may make it more difficult to draw a clear line between home and work and potentially compounds the impacts of increased domestic responsibilities.

These differences may be reflected in the reported work-life balance for our survey respondents. We found that women were more likely than men to report that work demands are high to very high while working from home. Women are also more likely to report feeling under strain and being unhappy or distressed. Many of the differences were further heightened for those parents with home schooling responsibilities. Of course, we are not suggesting here that only women have been negatively affected, that men are not taking on additional domestic or caring responsibilities or that there are not many men also lacking dedicated working spaces. What appears to be clear, however, is that there are unequal experiences of the current working arrangements necessitated by COVID-related restrictions.

The future of work?

The forced and sudden adoption of homebased working involved a lot of adaptation, resourcefulness and resilience. Yet, the real ‘mass experiment’ is still to come. We don’t really know what the future of work post-COVID will look like. It will certainly include forms of homebased working together with work in more traditional office spaces and, importantly, forms of telework at other locations (a café or gym, perhaps local teleworking hubs). The experimentation will come in working out how to manage these different ways of working. The flexibility that they promise may be difficult to accommodate across organisations, collaborative teams or when engaging with external stakeholders.

The flexibility and benefits for those with, for example, caring responsibilities have not yet fully materialised and will need significant work to achieve. The risk of women being disproportionately affected by domestic roles and caring responsibilities are exacerbated by locating their paid work in the domestic sphere. There are clear gains in flexibility from homebased working, for example in accommodating school times, but any gains are put at risk if the homebased working of women is more likely to be conducted from a laptop awkwardly accommodated in the kitchen rather than a dedicated home office.

Article: Where does work belong anymore? The implications of intensive homebased working
JournalJournal of Gender in Management
Author: Oliver Mallett (Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK)
Co-authors: Abigail Marks (Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK) & Lila Skountridaki (University of Edinburgh Business School, Edinburgh, UK)