Necessity is the Mother of Invention:
How being forced to live remotely can open doors to greater equality
in post-COVID-19 Society
by Briana Leaman
The current world climate is, let’s face it, pretty grim. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are dying from a disease that we still don’t have a handle on, and selfish behaviours are putting thousands more at risk daily. The Coronavirus pandemic has stirred something deep inside humanity and is making us question everything from the viability of globalism to how many rolls of toilet paper we ACTUALLY need (for those still searching for the answer to this age old question, visit https://howmuchtoiletpaper.com/).
There are certainly many, many things to which we must adapt as we navigate our new reality: physical distancing, not allowing people to pat our dogs as we take our daily walk around the neighbourhood (something our two social groodles are far from understanding), washing our hands with the precision of a surgeon, treating any potentially contaminated surface as if we’re the CDA from Monsters Inc., closed borders, and for many, the dawning of the reality that money isn’t everything.
Not all of the changes are bad. Where people have acted for the greater good cases are starting to diminish and get under control; families are spending more time together; people are experiencing what it’s like to live more simply, and for some this presents a chance to (in the immortal words of Ron Weasley) sort out their priorities; Venetian canals are running clear for the first time in decades (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-19/venice-canals-run-clear-amid-coronavirus-lockdown/12071378); Skies over Indian cities are blue where smog was once the normal weather forecast (https://www.sbs.com.au/news/delhi-residents-revel-in-clear-blue-skies-as-air-pollution-plummets-in-lockdown).
But what will happen when we return to “normal?”
And what will this new normal even look like? Because eventually, shops and restaurants will reopen, travel will resume, and our lives will, at least in some form or fashion, return to what they once were. So we have to make a choice: Will we just erase this period of time from memory and pick up where we left off? Or can we take parts of this transitional society and, through them, find new ways to improve life as we know it?
In the same way that my first international online game night with my family in the U.S. made us go “Why haven’t we done this before??”, the technology we are now forced to use could make our lives even more connected in the future. Now, I should first say that since being forced to self-isolate and do all of my work online, I have been encouraged by the “proof” that society truly cannot function properly without human interaction and empathy. A relief as the technological replacement of human skill has seemed to be trending. Therefore the example I’d like to propose is not put forward with the intention of replacing face-to-face humanity, but rather of supplementing it; the option of occasionally working from home for jobs that don’t traditionally require it.
I myself teach private music lessons in Victorian secondary schools. I also happen to be a woman. The first thing that popped into mind when I started teaching my lessons over Zoom and Microsoft Teams was “Oh my gosh! This could be a game changer in maternity leave of the future!” And every time I bring it up (particularly to other women) I get the same reaction: “You took the words right out of my mouth!”.
Though working a traditionally in-person job over the internet at home has certainly solidified my feeling that some things are better done in “analogue”, the development and continual improvement of this technology and its widespread use to maintain productivity has opened up a vast amount of doors for women, men, and single parents around the globe. I see this as a pivotal moment in the potential to promote equity in the workplace, bridge the wage gap, and offer viable solutions at times when we as humans might need a bit of flexibility.
The clearest example to me of the potential application of this idea would be allowing a woman the option of returning to paid work via distance technology after her maternity leave is up (18 weeks of government-subsidised leave in Australia). She would not have to choose between work and breast-feeding, or work and day-care, or even work and family. She would not be penalised or discriminated against for being “less productive” than her male counterparts simply because she has the potential to bear children. Instead I would propose that the option of extending maternity leave for, say, up to a year via distance working would allow a woman to maintain her career (and income) whilst still caring for her infant. Perhaps this could be a positive step toward implementing long-awaited improvements to partner leave as well.
The possibilities from there are endless. Employers offering a certain number of “work from home” days per year alongside sick leave and vacation days would allow staff the flexibility of working from home whilst caring for a sick child instead of being forced to take leave (or halt the company’s productivity for the economically-minded boss). What a life-saver this could be for single parents, not to mention for teachers who are often forced to be around sick kids because no one could take off work to stay home with them! And who knows? If life returns to “normal” before a vaccine is established we may not even be allowed to come in to the office or school if we develop a cough or runny nose, regardless of if we feel we could do the work.
Additionally, roughly 20% of the Australian workforce (of which women account for just over half) is casually employed, meaning they are not entitled to the maternity or sick leave suggested above which a salaried employee would be able to access. A day of work missed is a day without pay, and job retention is not always protected following extended leaves of absence.
I for one look forward to the potential of a more flexible society where women and parents don’t have to choose between two good things. Where we can strike a finer balance between family and economic contribution. Because the more we support each other, the more genuine our equity becomes. And with it, we’ll move mountains.