Why women need the office

No, no, this heading is not by me. It’s the Bartleby article of the Economist, August 28th issue. I could not believe my eyes. What was that about? Surely this is offensive and not politically correct?

No, no, this heading is not by me. It’s the Bartleby article of the Economist, August 28th issue. I could not believe my eyes. What was that about? Surely this is offensive and not politically correct? Gender bias at its most crass.

I guess I’m a bit over-sensitive to the topic right now, after spending a lot of my time over the last few days embroiled in questions about how to make texts gender-neutral in German. As if that were not hard enough already and immensely time-consuming with all the extra letters you need to type, every client now has their own preferred way of marking gender-inclusion: asterisks (Mitarbeiter*innen), underlines (Modeliebhaber_innen); colons (Kontobesitzer:innen), slash plus hyphen (Arbeitnehmer/-innen), explicit reference to both male and female (Verkehrssünder und Verkehrssünderinnen). I won’t mention the problems with pronouns here, but watch this spot if you are interested in the topic.

So singling out Women from the totality of the working population as needing the office, thereby suggesting that males and others don’t, seemed to me an outrageous proposition. Much to my surprise I found out in paragraph 3 of the article that on this particular occasion Bartleby is not male, but a female guest standing in for him.

There has been much talk about how much the pandemic has changed our lives. In particular our working and home routine. Numerous studies have now come out proving that women were significantly more affected than men. Not only were they more likely to lose their job, but more of the everday burden in terms of household duties, childcare, cooking etc. was heaped on them. On top of that came home-schooling, where it seems that mothers were also more involved than fathers.

One study carried out in Austria concludes: “Women are at their limit. They have had to cope with a massive additional workload for a long time. The pressure is now enormous. Women urgently need relief – it is time to act.” A German report on gender (in)equality during Covid times found that in many families the traditional distribution of unpaid childcare was becoming more entrenched and “women are bearing the brunt of the crisis”.

If combining a professional career with raising children has always been seen as a particular challenge, clearly during the pandemic this was reinforced. Even if you are a multi-tasking champion, you might have crumbled under the burden. “It can be tiresome to be many things at the same time”, says Ms. Bartleby. And then goes on to confess that “the office offers a welcome break from the never-ending duties of house-keeping and parenting”.

She then goes on to say that the demand (or hope) for flexible work arrangements was coming predominantly from women. This in turn might then force women to take on an “even greater share of family responsibilities”. Seems like a vicious circle, since women might then be paid lower salaries in comparison with their office-worker mates, and seeing their chances of promotion decrease.

However, the strongest argument for “Why women need the office” is a different one, more elusive, as she calls it. She says that women who do not return to the office will be missing out. Missing out on that chat or joke that you might share with a colleague while brewing your coffee, or washing your hands. She says that while physical closeness typically comes with higher risks (as in the current circumstances: infection), it also brings higher rewards, not least emotional ones. It is those that we miss out on when we are on Skype or Zoom.

Being relegated to a domestic setting rather than exposing yourself to the risks and pleasures of the office environment she sees as a curse, not a blessing (with a reference to Chekhov’s play ‚‘Three Sisters‘).

Other disadvantages that are mentioned in the article, and that I found something of a revelation because I had not thought about it quite in that way, are “relinquishing the daily banter and sense of complicity among colleagues…”. Women, she seems to say, being more determined not to waste a single minute, being intent to prove how efficient and how good at multi-tasking they are, will also be more prepared to renounce promotion. But that is outweighed by something else they are giving up: their connection to others. So, while there may be less tension, we are likely to lose our sense of belonging and having fun, sharing experiences together. So, putting it in a nutshell, Ms. Bartleby with her provocative title comes to our rescue with good advice: Dear fellow-women: Squander a few precious minutes here and there and expend them on “camaraderie and pointless glee”. And watch what that does for collaboration and making work a bit more fun, less lonely, and less prone to mistakes, I say. And, quite frankly, I don’t see why some of this would not apply to men too.

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