Teleworking to Inequality

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Teleworking from home (i.e. working from home based on digital infrastructure) is  becoming the “new normal.” The COVID-19 pandemic has forced numerous workers to participate in the largest ever global experiment in teleworking and to shift their working lives from the office to their homeplace. Telework has many positive effects on society, employers, and employees. It reduces traffic and air pollution, is considered to be cost effective for the employer, and is associated with preferable schedules and better work–life balance, especially for working moms. However, along with all its advantages, working from home also has problematic implications for workers’ rights. Among some of its drawbacks, working from home has negative implications for employees’ right to equality, and in particular the right to equality of mothers and underprivileged socio-economic groups.

The reason for this inequality challenge is rooted in the hybrid nature of teleworking from home. Teleworking from home combines the logic and structure of the traditional office with that of the private familial space of the individual. As such, it has the potential to reproduce gender and socioeconomic inequalities from the private sphere of the worker to her professional space and career.

Telework and Gender Inequality

Telework can further entrench gender inequality in the workplace mainly since the traditional roles women play at home tend to interfere with their professional life when they pursue their profession from home. Gender inequality and the challenges work-life balance were always embedded in the labor market. Since women are traditionally (and stereotypically) responsible for the familial tasks at home – such as childcare and housework – women find it more difficult to  devote time their professional career and to progress in the workplace at the same pace as their male counterparts. As an ILO-Gallup international comprehensive survey emphasizes, the question of work–life balance is considered to be “the top challenge for women at work globally.”

This reality also influences the ability of women, mainly mothers, to telework effectively from the home office. Research from around the world conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed a troubling gender gap in households with both male and female teleworkers regarding their ability to telework during the pandemic. The research shows how the uneven distribution of the childcare burden persists during the shift to telework and influences teleworking mothers’ ability to successfully perform at their jobs. For example, women were more often teleworking then men in the presence of their child, in a way that harmed their overall productivity.

Assuming that the teleworking trend continues, this reality of gender inequity is likely to stay with us even when the pandemic is over. This is since even without the excessive childcare demands posed by the pandemic, the traditional disproportionate burden of childcare on mothers will still affect them, such as when the children are out of school due to school breaks or illness. In this way, teleworking from home even during normal times will likely increase the pressure on women to constantly juggle professional tasks with home tasks, impinging on their ability to progress in the workplace competitively with male peers.

Telework and Socio-Economic Inequality

Socioeconomic inequalities that affect workers’ access to technology may also influence their ability to professionally progress and succeed in the home teleworking format. During the pandemic, workers with higher levels of education, across occupations, were more likely to transfer to telework. Similarly, the shift to teleworking was not feasible for households that do not have a computer or access to the internet at home, or face difficulty due to space constraints or because devices need to be shared among household members.

This is not surprising. To be able to telework from home, a worker needs a space that can function as a quiet working environment. She also needs basic office equipment, such as a computer and mobile phone, that she need not share with family members. Finally, the worker needs a good internet connection that will enable her to conduct her work as she does in the workplace, without any difficulties or undue distractions. These basics are not equally available in all households.

Regulating the Inequality Difficulty in Telework

The telework case demonstrates well how questions of technology and the future workplace require us to think about regulation in a broader sense. In telework, gender and socioeconomic inequalities embodied in long-standing structural discrimination in the private sphere between men and women combine with the ongoing discrimination in the labor market. In a similar manner, socioeconomic inequality in the telework case is linked to disparities in technological training in the educational system and the labor market, and coupled with pre-existing inequalities between households bound up with the over inequality in society as a whole.

Following this diffusion from the private sphere to the public sphere and its direct impact on the individual’s ability to equally succeed in the shift to telework, guiding principles for regulation should involve more significantly other entities beyond the employer and the physical workplace. For example, employers should be required to provide the employee with necessary work equipment and infrastructure when the work is shifted to the home-office. In a similar manner, the employer’s duties in regard to gender inequality should focus on adjusting the telework policy to mothers and parents, in a similar manner, for instance, to the requirement to adapt the workplace to disabled workers.

Alongside the above, however, more comprehensive and meaningful solutions are required to change the gendered-familial and socio-economic inequalities that are exacerbated by teleworking. This can be mainly achieved by providing technological education and skills for underprivileged populations, in primary and secondary education, and by facilitating private sector investment in training for technological training programs for adults. Gender inequality in the context of telework cannot be separated from the larger context of gender imbalance in the private-familial and public-professional spheres. One meaningful and far-reaching reform that could advance gender equity in the world of telework would be paid parental leave for men and women with father quotas, whereby a portion of parental leave is reserved for the father and is not actualized if he does not claim it. Research shows that a father’s quota fosters a better long-standing connection between the father and the child and identifies the father as a person who could stay with the child in the future during school breaks or illness. The influence of this policy on traditional gender parenting roles would ostensibly support a more equitable division of labor, increasing the ability of both to work equally and successfully from home.

The telework example exemplifies the interplay between technology and broader societal, economic, and familial structures. Specifically, it well illustrates how the technological workplace may reproduce and even further entrench inequalities in society. The telework case is indeed one of the prominent social challenges of the evolving digital reality, and a fine test case for exploring both implications and solutions applying to technological changes in these changing times.

This Commentary is published as part of the European-Israeli Forum for Technology and Society, a collaboration between the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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