Overlooking this issue would be a pretty significant oversight, given that recently appointed CEO Marissa Mayer announced her own pregnancy shortly after taking the reins at Yahoo and gave birth to a son in September of last year. Yet Yahoo has launched a move that many are seeing as downright hostile to working mothers in particular, banning the option to work at home and chaining their employees to their cubicles. Presumably, working at home leads to “empty parking lots” and employees slacking off on company time, despite research suggesting that this option actually creates more productive employees.
This is a feminist issue because women, no matter their economic status, are expected to have flexible schedules. Men, on the other hand, are expected to have rigid, 9-5 type jobs that they just couldn’t possibly take a day off from. Society is structured so that women are expected to leave early when a child falls ill at school or pushes the school swing-hog off the swing set and gets suspended for the day. Anyone who is or knows a mother knows the hell moms get for having to take off, but fewer people recognize that we set up this structure by not allowing people to telecommute or by ridiculing the male parent into pressuring Mom to take care of it. If we allowed for one or two days a week of telecommuting in fields where this is reasonable, then we might have a chance of breaking down that structure.
In many ways, Yahoo’s ban is seen as an assault on working parents. Parents who telecommute rely on the schedule’s flexibility to take care of children, whether it be tending to a toddler or just dropping off and picking up older kids from school. One would think that Marissa Mayer, who just had a nursery built next to her office at Yahoo, would understand this. I guess that’s just the disconnect that the very privileged often exhibit. And it’s not just mothers who need this flexibility. Centering this debate on working moms is itself sexist and puts the onus of childcare on the female parent, when it should rest on both parents. The ability to work at home is a feminist issue because it gives us the chance to level the playing field and give men the opportunity to parent equally, too.
This isn’t just a parenting issue either: the option to telecommute is invaluable for people with disabilities. Some people who might normally be excluded from certain careers because of disabilities rely on the ability to work from home at least a few days per week for employment. Eliminating this option is detrimental to those with disabilities. While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that reasonable accommodations be provided to employees, the publicity of the recent ban could scare off many potential applicants.
There are some who might argue that allowing women to work from home isn’t feminist at all. After all, we fought hard for the right to work outside the home (though this line of thought tends to exclude women of color and impoverished women who worked outside the home anyway out of necessity), and we’ve fought even harder to bust the glass ceiling. But in a work culture that views working from home as being lazy, is it really what women need? And in a re-emerging cult of domesticity, the option to work from home might create more of a social imperative to use that option to keep women at home with the children and housework. Then not only are they taking care of the kids, cleaning house, and preparing meals, they are also holding down a full-time job. Because of this, there is some worry that working from home creates double work for women and pushes them back into the homemaker role while also expecting them to generate an income.
Valuing a woman’s choice is always a top priority, and we should be able to trust women to make the career choice that is right for her. If that means telecommuting two days a week while taking care of a small child, that’s fine. If it means dropping off the kids at daycare and going to work, that’s okay too. And if it means a woman who does not have or want children telecommuting on a weekly basis so she can crunch numbers in faded leggings and a holey sweatshirt while eating cereal, then that’s also cool. This isn’t just about Yahoo, though such a large company making such a bold move creates an opening for every other company currently allowing or thinking of allowing telecommuting to outright ban it. It’s about the idea of working from home as a whole and how that concept affects feminism, women, and families. It’s possible that working from home could have some very negative effects, but it’s also possible that it could be just what we need to start changing how we look at equal parenting.