Is Working From Home a Feminist Issue?

I've worked in offices for small magazines, large media companies, and think tanks. So I know there's a lot about office culture that sucks: useless meetings, crackberries that ruin your precious out-of-the-office hours, and sometimes an assumption that whoever stays latest or arrives earliest is working hardest. In New York, there's competitive dressing. In DC, there are old-school dress codes, as if everyone were about to meet with a senator, any minute now! A lot of this is absurd. I'm a huge believer in flex time for office workers. There's nothing about the hours 9-7 that make them especially productive; a lot of us get more done in the evenings, or while fighting insomnia, or at sunrise. And the occasional guilt-free day of working from home is priceless: the quiet, the pajamas, the home-cooked lunch. For new parents, people with chronic health conditions, or people who serve as caretakers for sick or elderly relatives, having the ability to work from home at least some of the time can mean the difference between being able to hold down a job and being forced to quit. 

So I sympathize with those who are outraged over Marissa Mayer's decision to put the kibosh on work-from-home arrangements at Yahoo. It's insulting to employees to suggest that the only legitimate reason to stay home is "for the cable guy," and Mayer does sound like kind of a nightmare boss, counting the cars in the corporate parking lot at 5 pm. Because women tend to disproportionately handle child care and other domestic responsibilities, it is very likely that female employees will be especially affected by Yahoo's policy change. 

All that said, I'm not sure working from home is feminist nirvana.

I'm a freelance writer — a really lucky one, with a book project, an interesting editorial consulting gig, and frequent magazine assignments. I love what I do. But working from home is by far the hardest and least enjoyable part of my professional life. For one thing, it's lonely, isolating, and, at least in my case, challenging for my physical and emotional health. I often get so caught up in my indoor responsibilities that I forget to get fresh air, put on real clothing, take a walk, or talk to other human beings. At The Awl, Ken Layne pretty much nails what this can feel like. 

And here's the thing. For a woman, being stuck inside "the home" all day–a space traditionally coded as female, one that many women hold themselves to high standards to care for–can be especially stultifying. Here are some of the things I can do, in my home, when I'm supposed to be writing my book: Laundry. Emptying the dishwasher. Booking a hotel reservation for a friend's wedding. Cleaning the toilet. Shopping for and preparing a healthy, low-carb, high-protein dinner for my boyfriend and me. (This morning, I've already done several of these chores, and it's only 11 am.)

No one is forcing me to take sole responsibility for these tasks. If I don't do them when I'm "working from home," they will still get done. My boyfriend and I will split them up, or do them together. But here's the thing: It's really hard for me to be at home and ignore my domestic to-do list. I have a voice in my head telling me that until my apartment is neat, clean, and stocked with fresh food, it's perfectly okay to procrastinate on my real jobs, the ones for which I get paid: reporting, writing, and editing. After nearly three years of freelancing, I've learned that I shouldn't work from home more than one or two days per week. I now commute from Brooklyn into "the city" almost every morning, to work at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Yes: I voluntarily spend my days in midtown Manhattan, eat lunch at the ubiquitous Hale & Hearty Soups, and dodge tourists in the subway.

Granted, I don't have children yet. And if I'm still freelancing when I do, I know my flexible schedule will make parenthood much easier. Yet I have many freelancer female colleagues, a few years older than me, who admit that a big professional challenge is learning to turn off their mom selves and simply get to work (luckily, work they love). They are some of the people who helped me realize that even if you "work from home," you have to work outside your home often, and if that means scrimping for a babysitter, a coworking space, or a $104 monthy Metrocard, it's totally worth it, if you're privileged enough to be able to afford it. 

So here's my tentative conclusion. Flex-time is a feminist issue. Working from home full time? Maybe not so much. And here are some very definite feminist issues: Access to high-quality, affordable childcare. Paid sick leave, maternity leave, and paternity leave. Male partners who pull their weight at home. 

One thought on “Is Working From Home a Feminist Issue?

  1. EBB

    If, when you have children, you are still in the upper 40%, no-one is going to subsidize your child care. You will be earning enough to cover the cost yourself. I’m not saying this to be hostile, just to take note of the many things that upper-income women (and men) tend to think are going to be cheaper for them once the milennium comes. These things should be subsidized for lower-income families, of course.

    Reply

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