No more working at home: Is it the end of the smart mom?

Technology helps and it makes little sense to limit its potential to expand how and where women might work.

Godwin, an insurance claims supervisor, helps her daughter Grace draw pictures in Parker
With new technologies like telecommuting, mothers in the labour market are better positioned than ever to address both the "logistical challenges and institutional impediments to work-life balance" [Reuters]

As if working mothers don’t work hard enough, a new decision to ban telecommuting at global tech giant Yahoo! from working mother chief executive officer Marissa Meyer may make their lives even harder. Millions of mothers in the United States and around the world aided by the flexibility of technology are crossing their fingers and hoping that this company’s edict is not the signal of a trend, because I believe it will mark the death of the smart mom.   

Mayer recently announced a policy change in an internal memo leaked to the press saying their days of telecommuting are numbered. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” 

The underlying assumption is that working from home lowers productivity, efficiency and the creativity that comes from interacting with colleagues. It is an extreme position, given that many highly productive employees will tell you that they actually get more work done at home, away from frequent interruptions and water-cooler discussions that may be fascinating in the moment but often yield little necessary information. According to a recent report published in the Monthly Labor Review, 24 percent of employed Americans report that they work at least some hours at home each week. 

The Yahoo! plan goes into effect in June, just when more mothers are faced with what to do with school-age children all day long. 

Balancing work and family

Recent strides in the advancement of free mobile technology such as Skype, Google Docs and more have made it easier for women to juggle being mothers while working outside the home. 

By making the responsibilities of running a home, raising a family and advancing a career easier to manage (and share) wherever we are and at any time of day, the playing field is moving more in the direction of becoming level. Some women can somewhat have it all, and that is purely because technology is empowering busy working mothers and allowing for a new generation of smart moms.  

A month before the birth of our first child a year ago, my husband got a fantastic new job opportunity. As a curious twist of fate, the job turned out to be in my hometown – but in Michigan – four hours away from my university position outside of Chicago. We immediately thought through if we could in fact ensure that both of our careers progressed while we moved our focus to our family. 

He moved to Michigan to start the job, and the baby and I followed him a few months after. Not only did I decide to maintain my university professorship for a variety of professional reasons, but I remained chairperson of my department throughout the transition. 

This was only possible with a generous paid maternity leave of more than six months and employers on both my side and my husband’s side who were agreeable to making it work and embracing creative solutions. We travelled back and forth, called or Skyped in for meetings; and my husband had enough time away to be present for the birth of our child with a month’s paternity leave.  

Certainly, we are incredibly fortunate as most workers do not have these kinds of resources or job flexibility. But our experience suggests that employers can and should think creatively about the conditions where their workers can thrive and whether they are too narrow in their thinking about what is possible. Had our employers not made these accommodations, they may have lost a valuable employee who they had invested 10 years in developing or a new hire who had unique capabilities to help them expand. 

“Job flexibility in terms of permission to work at home as well as generous leave policies and supportive supervisors and co-workers are significant factors in determining whether a mother will retain her job after childbirth.”

In that sense, my experience is consistent with the analysis by the US Census Bureau that shows that job flexibility in terms of permission to work at home as well as generous leave policies and supportive supervisors and co-workers are significant factors in determining whether a mother will retain her job after childbirth. 

Cellphones, tablets and other mobile technologies have become our new appendages. They are more likely to lead to employers getting more not less work out of employees as we are essentially always on call. There are certainly some disconcerting implications to our forever wired society. But perhaps in some unexpected way, these technologies are also gradually leading to an important shift in how we organise our lives that will subsequently move us farther on the road to equality for women. 

Now that pieces of the second shift can be done outside of the walls of home with the right technology, new questions emerge about whether men and women can finally redefine gender roles so that “female” does not necessarily equal “grocery shopper”, “play date co-ordinator” and “keeper of the family calendar”.  

Technology and smart moms

By the same token, many jobs that were once impossible to manage while raising a family are now more accessible to women because of the opportunity to use technology and telecommute. 

The Pew Research Center reports that a whopping 87 percent of American adults have a cellphone and 45 percent have a smartphone, with operating systems that make phones much more like handheld computers. This technology is one of the few that is highly accessible to various demographic groups: 86 percent of blacks and 83 percent of Hispanics own cellphones, compared to 87 percent of whites. 

Don’t get me wrong. The most important forecasters of women’s economic fortunes are the availability of jobs (and jobs that provide generous health care coverage and perhaps even wealth-building resources like stock options), wages that are in line with men’s, affordable opportunities to gain more education, and policies that provide access to parental leave and affordable child care. 

Women of all races still experience a significant pay gap relative to white men. Having a strong support system that includes a supportive partner who is an equal contributor to child-raising and home duties and/or other family members and friends who are willing to play this role is what any mother will tell you is critical to even coming close to work-family balance. 

But technology helps, so it makes little sense to limit its potential to expand how and where women might work. 

Personal technology is becoming widely available for the majority of working moms in many countries around the world, even those not making six-figure salaries. That is putting significant and accessible technological power in the hands of those whose employment prospects are often significantly slowed after the birth of a child. As new technologies are coupled with policies such as telecommuting opportunities, mothers in the labour market will be better positioned than ever to address both the logistical challenges and institutional impediments to work-life balance. 

This could eventually help reduce the lagging disparities in income and wealth as women struggle to gain a meaningful foothold in the labour market while trying to raise a family. For smart moms, the elimination of telecommuting represents a worrisome blow to their economic prospects. I suggest we urge companies to make the smarter decision and let working mothers and fathers stay out of the office to get their jobs done. 

Dr Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, is Associate Professor of Sociology and African American Studies and Chair of the African American Studies Department at Northwestern University. She is also a Faculty Fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and Cells to Society: The Center on Social Disparities and Health. See more of her work here.