Who gets the office, who gets the kitchen table

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

Readers, you seem to like interviews with smart and interesting people. I like these interviews too, in part because they give me the chance to dig deeper into a body of work and figure out how to ask broad questions that prompt the interviewee to get at the heart of what they’ve often spent years (or decades!) of their lives thinking about. Some of these people get interviewed all the time, but only a sentence or two of their thinking makes its way into the final piece. That’s just how a reported piece works. But an extended interview lets you do something different.

This week I’m talking with Dr. Aliya Rao, a sociologist at the London School of Economics whose current research focuses on gender and unemployment. (You can find her new book, Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, here).

I first got interested in Rao’s work while reading Melissa Gregg’s fantastic book Work’s Intimacy, which looks at the ways in which digital technologies have shifted work into all corners of our lives (and homes). Amongst the heterosexual couples Gregg studied, she found that men often created a separate, private, discrete place for work (an office, a nook, a bedroom) while women did the work in central, accessible areas (at the dining room table, in the kitchen, in the living room).

We have a lot of very sensible reasons for working in the places we do. But why does men’s work so often occupy the more precious and privileged space? Why do women want to be in these more accessible areas, and what additional, often invisible work accompanies them there? Why is men’s work considered more valuable, just generally? It might seem weird to look at unemployment as a way to consider these larger questions, but I think you’ll find Aliya Rao’s ideas to be both bracing and clarifying.


Can you tell us a little bit about how you arrived at sociology and your area of study within it? What’s fascinating about unemployment, just generally ? 

My foray into sociology and into unemployment is in some ways a product of what C. Wright Mills would have called when personal biography meets social structure. I finished my undergraduate degree right about the time of the Great Recession, so my initial foray into the world of paid work occurred at an exceptionally uncertain time. To me, this idea of how people would deal with uncertainty in such a key realm of life  — employment — seemed important.

Sociologists often see uncertainty as a potentially productive time when new norms, new ways of behaving, new ways of understanding can arise. A lot of the analytical tools sociologists have really help with studying these kinds of pivotal moments in social life. 

There’s a lot of social science research on unemployment, but it has typically focused on the working class and poor. This is fair enough, since these groups were usually the ones impacted by factory closures and so on. But the Great Recession basically rendered unemployment as part and parcel of employment — something that is also now experienced by pretty privileged and credentialed workers. This is empirically new.

At a time of uncertainty, unemployment can also catalyze new norms. Unemployment, (especially men’s unemployment) may be a time when norms around gendered beliefs and behaviors can be revised — potentially as more gender egalitarian. In couples, for instance, the division of paid and unpaid work may often be explained by who earns more (and for various reasons, that is usually the men). When men don’t have jobs, that may catalyze a more gender egalitarian division of housework, since a key basis for why men don’t do it has been removed.

In one of your academic articles, you focus on how college-educated, professional mothers grappled with identity after losing or quitting their jobs — and the best way I can describe it is pretty profound ambivalence. What’s going on here? 

These mothers had felt very pulled by the demands of their paid work (long hours, working weekends, long commutes etc) alongside unpaid work, especially childcare, which usually fell on them. These mothers also had often had very poor experiences in workplaces — they recounted being passed up for promotions, having their professional skills and self worth questioned by superiors. Job loss was, in this context, a bit of a relief: the first few months were almost a respite from this relentless sequence of paid and unpaid work.

But after a few months, mothers with older kids found that they missed their professional identities and yearned to be back in the paid workplace. The joys of motherhood they had extolled right after losing their jobs sort of lost luster. But this did not happen for mothers with younger kids, especially those with kids who were not yet in kindergarten. For these mothers, childcare was a huge concern. My study was based on a sample of unemployed mothers in the U.S., and as you know, the U.S. has pretty limited provision when it comes to quality and affordable healthcare. (This is not inevitable, as experiences of mothers in other countries illuminate). 

These mothers of young children were consumed by how the salary they would gain from any potential paid work would be offset from the childcare costs they would accrue. For some mothers, this meant looking for what they called “mommy friendly” jobs: jobs that did not require any travel or take up extensive time; jobs where they could potentially have shorter working hours. A few talked about wanting part-time work. When I conducted follow-up interviews, these mothers reported they actually had found full-time jobs rather than the part-time ones they had wanted — and explained that the part-time jobs they keep seeing advertised weren’t really worth it, because of the lack of benefits and low pay. This, too, is vested in this study being in the U.S, where part-time jobs tend to be of lower quality than in many other countries where part-time jobs come with benefits, etc. 

You also find that women’s length of unemployment lasts longer than men’s — and that unemployment generally leads to a reinforcement of traditional gender norms. Can you unpack that more? 

This is a tentative finding and I think several things are going on. First, I find that unemployed mothers, even though they were job-searching, were actually pulled much more into the domestic realm. Doing things at home and doing things for their children became a priority — in the first few months in particular — because they felt like they had not been able to, as one mom told me “be the kind of mom I wanted to be” to her teenage son. The domestic arena became a source of validation, a place where they could embrace the culturally validated role of good mothers rather than unemployed workers. This choice was also endorsed by their husbands, children, by neighbors and other social groups. They were less frantic than men about job-searching.

This was not the case for unemployed dads, who put a lot of pressure on themselves to get re-employed quickly, and who definitely felt this pressure from their wives, acquaintances and friends. Basically, there was a stronger sense of stigma or individual flaw for men. They dove right into frantic job-searching.  

But there are other mechanisms at play, too. We know from prior research that when individuals have inconsistent employment histories (i.e. gaps on their resumes) they are disadvantaged when it comes to getting hired. The disadvantage is worse when someone reports having a gap due to reasons of “caregiving” as opposed to “unemployment.” Now, in my interviews with unemployed women, they often talked about how they would frame their unemployment for potential employers as rising from a tension between their paid work and caregiving at that moment in time. They thought it made for a better narrative. But according to my research, this narrative would actually be more harmful for their job search. (Another thing that could be going on: relatively affluent women, like the ones in my survey, often face a “commitment penalty,” where employers assume that they are less committed to demanding, full-time careers than similarly classed male applicants)

How do you think that your pre-pandemic research on unemployment — and attempting to job search from home — translates to our current situation, when many workers are attempting to juggle both parents working in the home, often alongside one or more children? As you put it, “The home is not a neutral space: it is drenched with gendered expectations of obligations that family members have to each other.” 

Within the couples I studied, men’s employment was prioritized. Being unemployed is seen as an urgent problem that needs to be fixed quickly (by getting a new job). Men’s time is thus protected for job-searching, and specifically protected from things like housework and childcare, which usually continue to fall disproportionately on their wives. Often, men also build or upgrade home offices in order to facilitate their job-searching. This is the case even when men had earned significantly less than their wives. In contrast, unemployed women’s job loss is usually not seen as a problem that must be remedied as soon as possible. Instead, there is an expectation — both self-imposed and from husbands — that wives should take over the unpaid work.

There are a few ways that this work can be extrapolated to the current COVID scenario. When both partners work at home in dual-earner couples, I’m wondering how the space of the home will be shared. For instance, if men’s jobs are prioritized, does this mean that they will get dedicated spaces to focusing on paid work, potentially away from the noise of children, and women won’t? [AHP note: here’s what happened when I asked my Twitter followers about their dual WFH scenarios]

Lockdown measures in many parts of the world have added so much unpaid work, whether from online schooling, the closure of children’s extra-curricular activities, or the closure of daycare centers. Some research shows that women have cut back on their hours spent in paid work much more than men precisely in order to be able to attend to this unpaid work. A small proportion may even be quitting their jobs in order to handle this. On the other hand, men appear to be doing more unpaid work than they did prior to the pandemic. Whether this moment catapults couples toward a more gender egalitarian way of organizing their paid and unpaid work together beyond the pandemic is very much an open question.  

So if we know that more women (and more women of color) are losing their jobs and dropping out of the workforce than men….and we know that it takes longer for professional women to find jobs….and working from home, just generally, reinforces existing patriarchal norms…..what do you see as the potential long-term consequences? And how do we start preparing to combat them now? 

Some scholars have argued that economic inequality in the U.S. right now is what it was like in the Gilded Age. The gap between the rich (let’s say 1%) and the super rich (let’s say top 0.1%) and the rest is really widening. Because of the norms and parameters and legislation that the U.S has decided are acceptable, people like Jeff Bezos can become unbelievably rich, whilst those working for them often don’t have access to even the most basic form of employment (or, during Covid, health) security. The problem is not necessarily that some people are getting very rich. It’s how those with skills and occupations that are often essential (healthcare workers, sanitation workers), but for whatever reason not highly valued on the market, are really not able to weather even small bumps.

If you look at the households in the top 1% of income distribution, in 19 out of 20 households it is men’s income that propels those households into this extremely elite layer. Women’s income only does so in 1 in 20 households. The gains of inequality are gendered and raced. It really boils down to the question: who is benefitting from all this economic inequality? And the answer is: primarily a very small group of very rich white men. (For more on race and wealth, check out this and this).

When it comes to gender inequality in slightly less affluent groups, some scholars have been worrying that any gains in gender equality made in the workplace are potentially being erased by the events of 2020. I’m inclined to agree with them. We know that even small gaps in employment have long-term consequences for things like lifetime earnings, ability to get re-hired, the kinds of job and sector you get reemployed into. These months, this year, and what follows will obviously have long-term impacts on employment and earnings.

If the relatively affluent mothers in my sample are struggling with the enormous demands of unpaid work (which can definitely be gratifying, but are also certainly devalued), then the burden on women without these women’s material resources (being able to outsource some of the caregiving to daycares, nannies, babysitters, housecleaners) must be enormous. 

We have to rethink how we center so many “benefits” — which I think we should see as rights — around employment. That includes health, retirement, childcare, parental leave, and an income to live a life of dignity. What this pandemic has shown is simply how unreliable employment is as the focal thing to organize these very important aspects of life. Given the instability of employment, we need to rethink tying access to quality healthcare or one’s future financial well-being to an employer. Paid work is really broken for way too many people.

Follow Aliya Rao on Twitter here and buy her book here.


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