Not playing house: women’s work deserves equitable treatment in COVID recovery

    May 27, 2020

    OTTAWA—The die has been cast. Game on, Canada.

    Last week, Shopify announced that it is switching to a “digital by default” model of human resources that requires all 5,000 of its employees to work from home indefinitely. This move follows similar ones by Twitter, Square, and Facebook to move permanently to a work-from-home model, while Google has extended its work-from-home horizon until the end of the year. As Tobi Lutke, Shopify’s CEO, tweeted: “Until recently, work happened in the office. We’ve always had some people remote, but they used the internet as a bridge to the office. This will reverse now. The future of the office is to act as an on-ramp to the same digital workplace that you can access from your #WFH setup. This means that the work experience should be the same for everyone who works together at Shopify no matter where they are working from.”

    Well isn’t that a quaint concept from Neverland. The idea of sameness is exactly what keeps us from reaching equality; recognizing that everyone comes from a different place and recognizing the needs of those differences is equity. And work-from-home policies are anything but equitable.

    Women, surely, are not finding the current remote-work situation equitable.

    Women continue to be largely responsible for reproductive work. A policy brief on the gender impacts of COVID-19 from the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management explains how women disproportionately shoulder the household burden: “As countries go into lockdown, women’s domestic work burden increases. When schools and daycares close and social distancing measures are put into place, caregiving is moved back into the home, and grandparents or other relatives cannot provide care. Further, sick and/or self-isolating people also need caregiving.” Without daycare, schools, or other social supports, women are stuck with both the professional burden of working full-time while taking care of children and attending to cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

    What do men do? Not nearly as much. And this differential in household duties means that women are more likely to reach a breaking point and leave the workplace. Indeed, this pandemic could result in a reduction of women’s labour participation, thereby shrinking our labour pool. That’s not a recipe for economic growth.

    Over the weekend, Twitter lit up, with a long-form piece in The Lilly as its catalyst. The piece brought home that women’s paid labour, already paid at a fraction of white men’s labour, is under threat as women move into the role of caretaker, or unpaid labourer. The real reason Twitter lit up was because we all concluded that one of the women featured was married to a wasteman—a stay-at-home dad who didn’t want to take care of his own kid, but was “considering his options.” Due to his laziness, his wife had to dissolve the company she founded, one that was devoted to hiring and promoting women of colour. All 13 of those employees have lost their jobs because one privileged luddite of a man didn’t pitch in.

    But if it’s this bad with men around, what about single mothers?

    According to Statistics Canada, there were 689,000 lone-parent families in 2014, of which women led 81 per cent. At that time, between a quarter and one-third of these women worked in the sales and service industry and 12.6 per cent of them were in the health-care industry. These industry categories indicate that these women may be more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 as essential workers, resulting in an additional burden for single mothers. In addition, the burden of domestic work—without child care—has served to stretch single mothers into panic. Daycares are closed, summer camps may be out for the season, babysitters are mostly out, as well as domestic care, usually performed by immigrants of colour who have their own families to worry about during COVID-19. All these fundamental supports that are critical to balance both work and home life are gone.

    Seems like old Black women were right: it takes a village to raise a child (we’ll forget that this was the title of Hillary Clinton’s picture book).

    This is exactly why we need a feminist recovery. And when I say feminist, I don’t mean “white women by default,” I mean intersectional feminism (or intersectionality, coined by Columbia Law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw) where the intersections of identity are fully realized in the policy-making space, which they currently are not. If your feminist policies aren’t intersectional, they’re just white supremacy in a skirt.

    Hawaii introduced it, why can’t we?

    Specifically, as a means to “diversify and reshape the economy,” Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women introduced policies that would engender some serious pearl-clutching in this country. These policies include the move from militarization and the move towards care-giving and equity including free, publicly funded child care for all essential workers. Ontario is already doing this so it shouldn’t be hard to make it permanent. Recovery without effective, equitable child care may result in a shrinking of the workforce, as more and more women may choose to opt out entirely because the burden is too great.

    It’s obvious that Shopify performed zero gender-based analyses or equity analyses for this move, and that’s at a detriment to staff that aren’t cis-gendered white men.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.