Women’s work – a way to resist gender norms under lockdown?

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that women in the 21st century still have to fight to have the right to work and that their employment is more vulnerable than men’s in bad economic conditions, according to Nathalie Clavijo and Ludivine Perray-Redslob

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed how much women’s emancipation through work is still fragile.

While the facilities that usually take care of children or free executive women from housekeeping were missing, many surveys showed that the allocation of housework between parents was unequal in most households and that many women were overwhelmed under the burden of housework, child-care and homeschooling (ee for example, Harris Interactive’s survey about the impact of lockdown on gendered inequalities or INED’s survey).

The first steps of lockdown release were also a challenge for many women as it was their responsibility to find solutions for childcare if they wanted to go back to normal labor activities. Women’s internalisation of their caregiver role led them to a situation where they felt trapped between their roles of mothers and accomplished executives. Yet, while this internalisation of the caregiver role explains why women did not let their children down, it does not explain why women did not step back from their careers and just let things go over the few months of the pandemic, especially in the French context where we carried our study.

A relief from professional activity

Indeed, during the pandemic, the French government structurally transformed existing socio-economic devices such as partial unemployment or authorised absences from work that could permit workers to be at least partially relieved from their professional activity. It is compelling that many of the women in our study did not claim such devices and hung on to their work, ending up exhausted, sometimes depressed, and feeling particularly guilty when they were about to send children back to a ‘pandemic normed’ school which was described as traumatic by many medias. Our first data collection over the pandemic shows that although women were particularly vulnerable to gender norms during the pandemic, it turns out that their job was their salvation, perhaps their only weapon to resist to such norms.

Many of the working-mothers we met confessed that they were doing their most to keep their jobs. They felt more vulnerable and anxious than men regarding their employment in a fragile economy and worked harder than usual to protect their position.

Sacrificing work for family

Despite their internalisation of their caregiver role, they were still questioning why they should be the ones taking care of the household and sacrificing their work for the family’s sake. While many couples used the salary argument to choose whose job would be given priority during lockdown, some women started to contest this logic as the crisis showed that the most useful jobs for society were the lowest-paid ones.

Women were also realising that their situation could get worse if they lost their job or decided to let go as one of the interviewees recounted: ‘My husband was working even harder than usually. He was escaping from household work and was not helping with homeschooling. I felt I also had to enforce working hours not to end up being the only one responsible for cooking, washing machine, taking care of the children, etc.’.

These women claimed that negotiating some time to work over the day, building barriers between their career and household responsibilities, did not mean that they do not love their children. It was rather a way to involve their partner more into the housework and, to some extent, share their caregiver role. This is how working became an individual, yet political act for many women to improve or at least maintain their condition into a gendered household and more generally in a fragile economy. In our interviews, some of these working-mothers also evoked the non-working mothers with anxiety, feeling sorry for those who had no barriers left to raise.

A warning signal

For the non-working mothers of our research, the pandemic has taken the form of a warning signal whereby they feel that the time has come for them to go back to the job market. Because these women do not have a payed job, they did not feel legitimate to ask their partner for help, especially in a time where they feared their breadwinner partner would lose his job. They devoted their whole weeks to ease the life of their children and partner and did not take any moment in their day to focus on themselves and on their own aspirations.

One of them confessed ‘It’s the first and last time something like this happens to me. I sent an application yesterday to go back to a teaching job once everything comes back to normal. If we live through this again in the future, John will be obliged to give a hand.’

Like this mother of three children aged from three-to-seven years old, most of the non-working mothers we met accepted the harsh consequences of the pandemic in their life by projecting themselves through a payed job that will give them some means to resist to their ‘caregiver’ role in the future. It is as if the pandemic made these women appreciate how much having a payed job was a way to resist these gender norms. It is as if they realised they were not keen to accept this gendered life anymore and it was time to take up arms. This is particularly true for those women who were working prior to the pandemic. However, will these women be able to find a job while taking care of their children in a pandemic context and in a weak economy?

The fight for the right to work

Actually, the pandemic has shown that women in the 21st century still have to fight to have the right to work and that their employment is more vulnerable than men’s in bad economic conditions. Over this crisis, many women faced a paradox their ancestors already experienced one century ago as they realised how much their work was a way to resist gender norms while being trapped in a society that limits their emancipation through work.

Despite the progresses made over the last decades to help women enter the job market, many still feel confined into and hampered by their housework and caregiver role. Indeed, most of the policies developed by governments and organisations, by targeting only women and helping them to make a career while having children, confine them ever more into their caregiver role. The pandemic has outlined it is time to sustain women’s work thanks to policies prompting fathers to be more involved into domestic and caregiving tasks.

Nathalie Clavijo is an Assistant Professor of Management Control at NEOMA Business School, and her research focuses on gender studies, feminist issues, sexism, diversity and stereotypes.

Ludivine Perray-Redslob is an Associate Professor in Management Accounting at emlyon Business School

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