What about ... Just Staying Home!
This is the fourth article in our series looking at the challenges faced by women in re-entering the workforce after time away. In this article we look at the dream of working from home, and the reality.
Once, women worked at home, or from home. And the further back into history we go, the more likely that most of the work was close by to where the family lived. And this wasn't all housework or child rearing, although they did plenty of that too. Women spun yarn, wove cloth and mats, made garments, preserved foods, dressed animals, threw pottery, bought and sold their own and others handiwork, harvested, gleaned and threshed grains, and supported their men in their hunting/farming ventures.
Nothing much changed for women in most cultures until comparatively recent times. Partly because of cultural barriers, but primarily because of the limited technology available to enable people, most often women, to make and sell the results of their handiwork.
The changes started when new tools and machines were gradually introduced into communities. Some of these technology changes, such as the spinning wheel which came to Europe in the early 13th century, allowed individual women to produce more and better quality items, and communities benefited from the increase in available clothes, bedding and furnishings. Spinning also brought women together in groups, and often took place in parlours or in small communal halls. If you weren't married and off to a life of domestic toil, you were likely to remain sorting, carding and spinning wools and other fibres, and hence the term spinster, which originally denoted women who span, but later became a common term for an unmarried woman.
By the 15th century in much of Europe, many women were still spinning, others were working in their homes, but many were also the brewers, artisans and community support of their village or town. This page on the Wiki has some good commentary on those times.
The industrial revolution of the 18th century heralded fundamental change in the nature of "work" with emphasis on "production" and creation of factories where large groups of workers, frequently women, would undertake repetitive and often dangerous tasks. Working in the cotton spinning industry, which grew rapidly in the middle of England was a prime example of a dirty and arduous occupation where women worked in much larger groups and further from their homes.
Urbanisation started to impact on not only the work but where it was undertaken, especially in Europe. Two world wars also re-introduced several generations of women to the "workforce" and removed much of the individual servitude that was the lot of many women in Europe. However, following the second world war, a demographic change occurred in most western societies that was heavily influenced by the sheer number of children that families were having. The "baby boom" took many women out of the workforce and into full time child rearing. This left the field to men for almost 3 decades. Women were working in the home, but not a lot of it was paid.
Since the late 70's there has been a rapid increase in the number of women in the workforce and by the mid 1990's in New Zealand approximately 64% of working age women (defined as ages 15 to 64) were in paid employment.
The Covid 19 pandemic, when large numbers of people in NZ and elsewhere were working from home, brought the concept of working from home to vivid life. Work carried on. WFH became another anagram representing a global phenomenon.
The WFH genie is out of the bottle and it's likely that there will be a lot of people who don't want to go into an office 5 days a week again. This is to be welcomed, for traffic reasons if nothing else. But it is peripheral to what we were thinking of when we talked about working from home.
Digital natives have already changed the way we view the world, and many of the people involved in the digital world have been working from home well before Covid 19 took WFH mainstream. The digital world has introduced us to roles that didn't exist 10 years ago which are ideally suited to being at home. Roles like Influencer Marketing Advisor, Digital Copywriter, Social Media Resourcer are new. Others like Survey Researcher, Contact Centre Operator, Medical Transcriptionist, have been around a while, but the technology exists to allow people to do these at home as if they were in the office, provided they have fast enough connection to the internet.
What differentiates these from more traditional office based work is that they are all concerned specifically with how people feel. I'm not claiming that women have a monopoly on roles that have to do with how people feel, I'd be interested if there was quality research on this topic. But I do think that for many women there are roles that allow working from home full time, irrespective of pandemics.
Realistically, as with all roles, these digital roles will suit some women better than others.
And working from home is not without it's own issues. It's true that many people were able to carry on with their formerly office based work from home while lock-downs have been in place. Yet for women the experience was mixed. They were still doing the same office work, but often looking after children, and sometimes a husband, also doing office work from home. In some cases they got to sit at something like a desk with a decent chair, PC and a big screen. In others, possibly most others, they ended up at the kitchen table with a laptop.
If this is something you are thinking about have a look at the roles available in the digital world, what you have at home to enable this including a reasonable home office setup, and fast and stable broadband.