Measures ensuring gender equality fall short when the boundary between working hours and family life becomes increasingly blurred

The pandemic has made the boundary between working hours and family life even more blurred, and many wonder how this will affect working life in the future. We may find some answers in fields such as information technology (IT), where measures ensuring gender equality fall short and the gender balance is still uneven.

Norway is celebrated as a country with good arrangements ensuring women to participate in working life on an equal footing with men. But is that so?

If it had been only me, it would never have worked,” said a mother when she described her career in IT. She was one of 28 women we interviewed for our Nordwit-study on women’s careers in IT.

Norway and the other Nordic countries score high in international indexs of gender equality. This is the result of many decades of political struggles of which we are reaping the benefits today, in the form of schemes such as full daycare coverage for children over one year, flexible parental leave and a separate paternity leave. This policy has helped many women to return to the labor market earlier after giving birth. By comparison, one in three Italian women leaves work after having their first child.

IT is one of the fields in Norway where arrangements supposed to ensure gender equality come short. The field is still today male-dominated, characterized by competition, high wages and long working days, and consequently a difficult working place for women with care responsibilities. Some studies have shown that women in IT often have more flexible working conditions, but also longer working days, than women in female-dominated occupations. This reflects a work culture that we can call “greedy” – that is, a culture demanding and expecting work commitments exceeding normal working hours.

In contrast to the dominant narratives of working women in media, for instance describing a tradition of women reducing their work engagement due to “a choice to prioritize family over work”, the women in our study work full time even when they have described a choice of prioritizing children and family over careers. These women felt that they had given up their careers even when they worked 100 percent.

The women who described their experience of having a good career development, by comparison, worked more than full time. This was possible because they had a partner or close family who could contribute to care for children and family. This indicates that the balance between work and family life is an illusion in industries where the job routinely supplies itself with the employee’s leisure and family time in the form of frequent work trips, courses and meetings in the afternoon and long working days.

Flexible working hours has been an important work arrangement for creating a better “balance” between responsibilities related to family and work. Like other studies, our analysis shows that flexible working hours can, surprisingly, put more strain on women by making it acceptable (even expected) to work both evenings and weekends. The problem is that flexible work in this form, as more work in the space and place of family life, is an addition to other care responsibilities that women often have the main responsibility for.

Our study thus shows that when women succeed in career development in fields such as IT, it is not women’s flexible working hours that are the most important measure. On the contrary, it is their partners’ flexible working hours and predictable work routines and their choice of using it to childcare, that gives women the space they need to develop their career. As one of our informants said: “I commute to work, and then my husband picks up and delivers the children every day. But also the one day a week that I work from home, it is still him who picks up and delivers the children, since he is a teacher.” Here we move into an area that politicians cannot reach directly: the private sphere – the way couples negotiate to make their everyday lives run smoothly. Negotiations that are necessary for women in fields such as IT to achieve a better balance between family and career appears to remain a chapter between those at home. A different way of seeing it is to ask for new ways of promoting gender equality in working life. An important issue right now is to keep an eye on the changes that the pandemic has brought with it: the home office – working where and when we want to. The new home office might strengthen women’s participation in working life. At the same time, the increased flexibility at the home office may prove to be a double-edged sword for working women. This should, however, not be considered a private sphere issue, but rather be noticed by both employers and trade unions, and it should concern everyone who still cares about gender equality.

Gilda Seddighi and Hilde G. Corneliussen

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