We are now in what I call the dog days of quarantine, at least in New York. At the beginning, everything was terrifying and new, so there was no expectation of routine. Like lots of couples, my husband and I were adjusting to what it meant for both of us to be working from home. So, on some days, I worked at the kitchen island, which meant boosting myself up on various pillows and desperately hoping that my papers wouldn’t slip into the sink; he would work at the desk in our second bedroom, which we used intermittently as an office. On other days, we switched. We were the modern couple, living the equality dream. This was March.
Cut to June: Without a room or desk of my own, I floated from the kitchen island to the floor to the couch to the bed. When I was at the kitchen counter, I thought endlessly about what we should have for dinner while simultaneously positioning myself during Zoom calls to block out anything embarrassing behind me. When I was on the floor, I noticed just how disgusting our rug had become because, apparently, I shed like a golden retriever. When I was on the couch or the bed, I would inevitably nod off, awakening in a puddle of drool an hour later. My husband, meanwhile, was at the desk in what both of us reflexively began calling “his” office.
How did that happen?
I have a masters in gender and women’s studies and currently co-teach a course called “Leadership, Diversity, and Inclusion” at New York University School of Law. Gender equity (and lack thereof) is pretty much always on my mind.
As article after article has shown, the pandemic is screwing working mothers. They are doing more household chores, have taken on the bulk of child-care responsibilities and are the default home schooling gurus — even though their partners believe otherwise. As Jessica Valenti recently put it, “Covid-19 may be making it harder for parents to balance their home and work lives; but it’s dads who are making it harder for moms.”
But there’s a problem with this explanation in my case: My husband and I don’t have children. We don’t even have a dog.
To be fair, there was a perfectly good reason why the office became my husband’s domain, a decision in which I was complicit, albeit with some trepidation: He was preparing for a trial, had lots of documents, and needed the large second monitor to take notes while going through deposition testimony. Because I had finished teaching for the year, I therefore agreed that he had the greater need for the space for the time being. But this was still a sacrifice: I was reading many books for work, taking notes, trying to write an academic article and constantly logging onto Zoom calls. I knew not having a stable environment in which to focus — my own space — was hurting my work.
I started wondering how many other women in heterosexual relationships without children also had partners with “perfectly good reasons” for taking prime working real estate in the home. In what one might call a fit of rage when the knot in my neck had become unbearable due to my awkward positioning, I emailed some friends to find out what the deal was for them.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone. One woman who said she worked on her bed wrote, “My partner works at the desk. I’m not sure how we ended up with this setup. ... Now that I’m writing it out, it stinks!” Another wrote back, “[My husband] and I both worked in the other bedroom or the ‘office’ and he took the desk and I took the bed or sometimes the side of the desk. I know, shocker?” And another who worked at home before the pandemic offered her office space to her spouse because “[h]is work is very dependent on having multiple screens, whereas mine is less so.” She went on, “[My husband] makes about 10x as much as I do right now, and I worry that I ... allow that to influence how I think about the importance of our respective work.”
I was pleased to see that for some of my other friends, the division was more equitable. One woman’s work was “busier and more demanding” than her husband’s, so she got the better work spot. A few said they traded off depending on who had more external facing meetings that required a closed door. Another said they spoke about it in the morning or the night before, so they could decide what made the most sense for that particular day.
Of course, this is not a controlled study. But the responses made clear to me that we are always tethered to locations, which in turn are shared in patterned ways with others; even for those of us lucky enough to work “from anywhere,” “anywhere” is actually a precise location with a function and a name — i.e., the kitchen. And who gets to work where says something about what and whom we consider important.
There is no doubt in my mind that working mothers and those with caregiving responsibilities have it worse in the pandemic — and the labor market more generally — than those who do not. Social science and personal experience support this conclusion. I had to watch my 3-year-old niece for approximately five minutes, and in that time, every Post-it note and other sticky office supply that I needed for work was scattered on the floor of my bedroom. As my niece pointed out, I had left my bedroom door open and the “sticky treasures” within her reach. Point taken.
But my friends’ responses made me reflect on what scholars Irene Padavic, Robin Ely and Erin Reid describe as the ubiquitous trope that “women’s devotion to family” is what holds women back professionally. In their study of a particular company, they found this “work/family narrative” incomplete. And one of the reasons they found the narrative incomplete was because the promotion record of women without children was no better than that of mothers. In other words, the company couldn’t blame women’s lack of advancement on the fact that women had children — the actual reason for women’s lack of advancement in that circumstance, according to the researchers, related to the company’s general culture of overwork. But the company was so attached to the “work/family narrative” that the company fired the researchers when the results weren’t what it wanted to hear. The company wanted its problem to be simple and to be about motherhood — but it wasn’t.
Similarly, here, I want us to be cautious about accepting the “work/family narrative” too quickly as the explanation for all gender-based inequities unleashed by covid-19, lest we lose sight of sexism’s many forms. Of course, there are numerous explanations for why some of my female friends and I got or volunteered to take the short end of the stick in terms of home working space — maybe it’s because we have been socialized to be accommodating, felt (or projected) pressure from our partners or simply concluded it was the rational decision given the circumstances. Or maybe it is because in ways small and large, we as a society — including our “progressive” workplaces, “progressive” spouses and, yes, even our “progressive” selves — often diminish the worth of the work that a woman does, whether or not she is a mother. This may not be the narrative that we want, but it may be the one that fits.
In the specific context of shared spaces, there will always be circumstances that call for compromise, as was the case with my spouse. Still, Virginia Woolf’s seminal point remains as true today as it did almost 100 years ago: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” or, I’d argue, to do anything at all.
So I bought a desk for the bedroom. Now, I’m closing the door and getting to work.
Jessica Moldovan is a research fellow at the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and an adjunct professor of law at New York University School of Law.