Understanding the Gendered Experience of WFH, through Susan Moller Okin’s Work

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From the work of Okin, we understand that women in heterosexual marriages or domestic partnerships do not enjoy the comfort of the home as their male partners do.

Since March 2020, going outside of our homes has been termed risky because of the contagious nature of the SARS-COV-2 virus. Health experts and government bodies worldwide advised that socialisation and contact with other human beings should be restricted to one’s own family. Many offices had to shut down, and the employees were directed to work from home from their remote workstations. Although these employees belong to a certain kind of sector since all work cannot be done from home, the increased digitisation of work across the world and access to high-speed internet made it possible to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was not possible during the say 1918 flu pandemic.

The transformation of the workplace from the cubicles of the office to the couch or the bed of the home has been accepted and celebrated by many employers and employees alike. One obvious benefit is the diminished chance of not getting infected by the SARS-COV-2 virus. Others believe that it is much more beneficial to work from the “comfort” of one’s home (Cramer & Zaveri, 2020). Here I would like to problematize the word “comfort.” The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines the word comfort as “the state of being physically relaxed and free from pain; the state of having a pleasant life, with everything that you need” or “a feeling of not suffering or worrying so much; a feeling of being less unhappy.” In this context, it is essential to ask, whose comfort are we talking about, and is there a difference in the degrees of comfort enjoyed by an individual in their home? To answer these questions, I would like to use a gendered lens and use concepts from the feminist literature, especially from Gender, The Public, and The Private by Susan Moller Okin. (Okin, 1991)

It is crucial here to mention the political-philosophical root of the understanding of the home as the “comfort” zone. Although there are ambiguities and overlapping consensus on the definition of what constitutes the private, an overwhelming consensus exists as to what constitutes the private sphere and the public sphere, especially in liberal theory. In this dominant understanding, the private sphere is understood as that domain of social life in which interference with freedom requires special justification, and the public sphere is regarded as that domain in which interference is readily justifiable. Many works of political theory term the private sphere as the domain, which is outside the purview of the state (Okin, 1991, p. 119). For the gendered analysis of the work from the home regime, I would like to term the private sphere as the domestic domain and the public sphere as the non-domestic domain. According to Susan Moller Okin, the continuation of this distinction is the primary cause for the ignorance of the power dynamics (therefore political) within the family, personal justice, and gender inequality (Okin, 1991, p. 118). Continuing on the reasoning of Okin, I will show here how the home in the current scenario is still seen as a zone of “comfort” and how the gendered analysis of this “comfort zone” brings out anomalies that question the efficacy of working from home.

Since the seventeenth century, political rights and rights related to the modern liberal conception of privacy in the private sphere have been claimed as the right of the individual. Thus, this private sphere was immune to the intrusion by the state, the church, and the neighbour. Most importantly, this individual had the right to control the other members of their private sphere who were subordinated to them by either reason, age, sex, or servitude. In a patriarchal family setup, the men were this individual and had the right to control the women and the children (Okin, 1991, p. 118). According to Okin, the division of labour between the sexes form the fundamental base for the distinction of the public and the private (Okin, 1991, p. 118). Liberal theory (written mainly by men) considers men to be associated with the political and economic life of the public/non-domestic and women to be associated with domesticity and reproduction. A gendered biological determinism in liberal theory considered women to be both unsuited to the work of the public sphere and by nature well suited for domestic work and child-rearing. These assumptions have shaped the construction of the private sphere (Okin, 1991, p. 118). Thus, when a man comes back home from the workplace, he assumes the role of the master. It becomes not his duty to take part in household chores, and generally, within this imbalanced power hierarchy between him and his wife (where the state, church, or the neighbour has no right to intervene), the husband assumes immense power to demand services from his wife to feel comfortable. Services like cooking, cleaning, and caring are commonly expected out of a wife towards their husband. Thus, it is mainly for the patriarch of the household; the home becomes a “comfort zone.”

It is evident from here that women in heterosexual marriages or domestic partnerships , which are underpinned by gender inequality, do not enjoy the comfort of the home as their male partners do. In this context, many women who are part of the labour force when pushed into the domestic/private domain during the COVID-19 pandemic had the added responsibility of care work towards their husbands, family members, and children. (Dutta, 2020)

For understanding the fundamental difference for a woman between the formal workspace and working from home, a discussion of privacy is of utmost importance. As shown earlier, the importance of privacy of the family from the public has shadowed and marginalised the individual’s privacy within the family unit, especially in the liberal understanding of the term, ‘privacy.’ Even though such understanding emerged during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, our society still carries this same understanding of privacy of the individual who is a man. A large number of reports during the lockdown across the world from China, India, and Europe indicated a sharp rise in domestic violence cases. In India alone, the National Commission for Women registered an increase of at least 2.5 times in domestic violence cases since the country went into lockdown (Chandra, 2020). I think the legitimisation of domestic violence comes from the fact that men assume themselves as the masters of their household and can break the women’s privacy and inflict violence. The safest place to avoid the infectious disease became a place of perpetual violence against many women. In such cases, how can the home be the safest and the most efficient place to do paid work for women?

Okin, in her essay, discusses three paramount importance of privacy. Firstly, privacy is required for intimacy. The family in a domestic setting is regarded as the site of this privacy in which personal intimacy can be nurtured. Can women find the privacy required for intimacy in the private sphere? According to J. Roland Pennock, the small groups needed for an individual for the growth of intimacy should not have any reliance on force, thus negating the distinctive element of the political (Pennock, 1971 as cited in Okin, 1991, p. 134). In households where there is violence or the threat of violence, intimacy cannot grow, and as a consequence, I do not think women can be equally productive employees as men.

Another reason, which stresses the importance of the private sphere, is because it allows an individual to escape from the tension of various social roles of the public sphere. It is a place where one can relax and not worry and can develop their personality (Okin, 1991, p. 134). However, for most women in gender unequal households, the chance of getting away from social roles simply does not exist. As discussed earlier, the onus of household chores in patriarchal households falls disproportionately on women. As I discussed in a previously written essay, women, while doing paid work from home, were also compelled to perform household chores like caring and cooking, which hugely affected their productivity (Dutta, 2020). Women are much more likely to get distracted during working from their homes because of their inability to shed off the social roles associated with their gender. This is evident when Okin writes (Okin, 1991, p. 135), “Indeed, a whole different standard of what constitutes ‘neglect of one’s family is generally applied to women, just as ‘mothering’ a child means something entirely different from ‘fathering’ one.” In this context, it can be argued that the office may be the better working place for women than doing paid work from home.

Finally, privacy is essential for mental self-development as solitude and the opportunity to concentrate are critical arguments in defence of a private sphere (Okin, 1991, p. 135). In the current working from home scenario, two disadvantages with respect to this argument emerge. Firstly, let us take into account what Okin writes (Okin, 1991, p. 136), “‚Ķfor men having a family is far less in tension with artistic and other creative achievements than it is for women, and many women feel that they must choose between the two. As those who have refused to make this choice testify, it is exceedingly difficult under current conditions for a woman to have her work, her children, and her relationship with a male partner all flourishing at the same time.” This argument can be very well expanded into the current working from home scenario. Women who are involved, especially in academia and other jobs which require time and space to think freely, can be overwhelmed by household chores (Dutta, can working from home promote gender equality? 2020). Secondly, finding no time for relaxation as women working from home can find themselves sandwiched between household chores and office work adversely impacts women’s mental health, which is a grave concern (Balakrishnan, 2020).

While there are many advantages of working from home in the current COVID-19 pandemic, this new working model can only flourish if the family is transformed into a gender-equal space with respect for individual privacy. Gender equality can only make the home a comfort zone.

References

Balakrishnan, R. (2020, October 10). How work from home is affecting women’s mental health in times of coronavirus. Retrieved from Her Story: https://yourstory.com/herstory/2020/10/world-mental-health-day-work-home-women

Chandra, J. (2020). NCW records sharp spike in domestic violence amid lockdown. New Delhi: The Hindu. Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ncw-records-sharp-spike-in-domestic-violence-amid-lockdown/article31835105.ece

Cramer, M., & Zaveri, M. (2020, May 5). What if You Don’t Want to Go Back to the office? Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/business/pandemic-work-from-home-coronavirus.html

Dutta, M. (2020, August 28). Can working from home promote gender equality? Retrieved from CASPR Op-Ed: http://oped.casprindia.org/show_article/opeddetails/36

Dutta, M. (2020, May 26). Gendering The Pandemic: Where Are The Womxn Policymakers? Retrieved from Youth Ki Awaaz: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/05/pandemics-and-gender-inequality/

Okin, S. M. (1991). Gender, the Public, and the Private. In A. Phillips, Oxford Readings in Feminism | Feminism, and Politics (pp. 116-141). New York: Oxford University Press.


Image Credits: Standsome Worklifestyle on Unsplash

Manish Dutta
Manish is a 3rd year undergraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. He currently looks forward to a career in academia and research in International Relations.

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