Clara is a researcher in charge of four doctoral students, Nadja a web chief editor and manager of 10 people, and Floria a recently established entrepreneur. Settled in heterosexual couples, mothers of one or several children, these women benefit from jobs with flexible hours and generally work autonomously. In theory, this is all good. However, as the Covid-19 lockdown was being gradually eased in France, their children were not given priority to go back to school or daycare centres.
During this period, these women and their partners had a difficult equation to solve: to continue working full time while taking care of their children, home-schooling them and managing a surplus of domestic chores. Today, the issue has become even more complex as employers urge their staff to come back to work, at least on a part-time basis.
Many of these women have the financial means to subcontract domestic chores, but the main difficulty still remains taking care of their children and ensuring their pedagogical follow-up. Given the need to protect elders, grandparents are not the solution they once were, and moreover, many couples cannot afford private baby-sitting services. Even those who can have difficulty finding someone able to manage home-schooling as well.
More than ever, these couples are faced with a decision to make, and chose who is going to be in charge of most of the domestic and parental load, and whose work is going to have priority.
Internalizing the “caregiver” role
More often than not, the question of “whose work is getting priority?” is never openly asked within families. Sociologist Émilie Genin explains that because women have internalised the role of “caregivers”, they “naturally” step back from their professional career to devote themselves to their children, thereby facilitating men’s work.
Other studies show that even when women are the “breadwinners” of the family, those providing financial support to the rest of the family, their internalisation of their role as “caregivers” is leading them to think that they are the ones who are supposed to take care of the children. Consequently, they continue to carry a large part of the domestic and parental load.
This pandemic is no exception. In a study currently running on executive women during the sanitary crisis, we have collected testimonials of women researchers, entrepreneurs, marketing directors, and research and development managers. These testimonials show that they give priority to their household, but that in order to somehow safeguard their professional careers, they seek to make full use of the flexibility of their work.
These women then begin to start working “on the margins” of time and space usually devoted to their professional activity. They tell us how they now work before their children get up, after they go to bed, at night and on weekends:
“I find myself working at 3 a.m. because then I’ll be able to get things done. But I work with the stress of being interrupted by my child. David never hears anything, he’s a heavy sleeper. There were times when I had to go back upstairs, cradle my young one for 45 minutes and come back down. I’m wiped out.”
Others complain about working through insomnia, often caused by the anxiety they feel regarding their marginalisation from the work sphere.
Faced with the absence of any structure to take care of their children, these women maximise their possibilities of home-office until the next back-to-school in September 2020. They give priority to their husband, for their customer visits, on site business meetings and their business trips. These women stay home and are left, for the most part, alone in charge of cooking, cleaning up and home-schooling. These executive women tell us that they are feeling “locked-down” at home, despite the lock-down release, and that they fear they will not be able to take this situation any longer.
Some men have also allowed their work to slide into “marginalized” spaces and times during lock-down and have also been playing on the flexibility of their work since lock-down release. But since their wives have internalised their roles as “caregivers”, these latters continue to anticipate children’s needs, want to be in charge of their pedagogical follow-up and even try to anticipate their partner’s needs and find solutions to relieve them.
For other men – the partners in our study – the flexibility of their wive’s work gives them the opportunity to actually “unlock”. However, in the absence of schools and child-care facilities, as men’s work becomes “demarginalized”, women’s work is even more “marginalized”. In other words, in these couples, it is now a given that men are to rapidly return to a “normal” work pace and work space, whereas women are expected to “compensate” the absence of schools and child care structures by making the most of the flexibility of their work.
Women must fight to be able to work
These women then feel the need to fight to be able to work. Firstly, against their own body so as not to be overwhelmed by stress and the exhaustion of intense day, of short nights, of femininity injunctions which did not die down with lockdown, but also of an ever growing mental load women must deal with mostly by themselves.
Then, women fight against social judgement. Wanting to save their job at the expense of their children’s physical and psychological health is not always well perceived and makes them feel guilty:
“I have to admit that I’m a little scared [to put her back to school], but do I really have a choice?”
Other women tell us that they fight against their husbands to “negotiate” arrangements to “de-marginalise” their work. Lastly, some mothers fight against institutions to obtain a few days of child care for their children.
“I’ve sent a distress e-mail to the school principal. I know they have about a dozen spaces left. She answered that I was lucky to be able to work from home and that I have to think of my child’s welfare first. But what’s going to happen the day I blow a fuse because I cannot take it anymore, will I be responsible for my child’s unhappiness?”
This pandemic thus confronts these women with gender norms they usually manage to mask or even deny, thanks to the facilities (school, day care) that support their emancipation
Flexibility: a false “choice”
In our study, women seem to be at the origin of their own lockdown. They chose flexibility then decided to make the most of it. But what two French Female researchers underline is that this very “choice”, is no choice at all. It is rather dictated by internalized social standards, prompting women into careers allowing them to accommodate their professional and private lives.
Making the most of this flexibility is not a choice either. As indicated here-above, it is mostly the result of the internalization of the role of “caregiver”. These women are not responsible for their own lockdown, but are rather victims of internalized gender standards. This is where they are subjected to some sort of “symbolic” violence.
What these testimonies are revealing is that some sort of physical and emotional violence also transpires from the exhaustion and guilt these women are narrating. In an article one of the authors recently published, she highlighted the fact that this pandemic emphasises the vulnerability of women in the absence of the facilities they can usually rely on to emancipate themselves through work.
Incomplete professional equality policies
If executive women are holding prestigious positions and are financially independent, still, the pandemic shows that behind the scene, they are still confronted with powerful gendered norms.
In her thesis to be defended at the end of June 2020, one of the authors shows that executive women at Saint-Gobain suffer from vertical and horizontal segregation in their career due to maternity leave and a gender biased evaluation system. Gender equality policies, by trying to ensure that women and men receive the same salaries and occupy the same positions, leave the structural dimensions that (re)produce inequalities in the dark.
More than ever, this pandemic shows that gender equality is not just a question of financial independence or career valorisation. The gender norms that at the root of such inequalities must be addressed and explained so that equality is fully redesigned.