Beyond crunching data and marking university assignments, not everyone has a good idea about what it is sociologists actually do. But my experience from more than 20 years teaching and researching in this area suggests when it comes to understanding our mysterious cultural quirks, sociologists are a good bet. I’d like to share some reflections about what prompts social change, big and small.
Let’s examine something that has a really big impact, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. During your isolation in your home you will have undoubtedly noticed, if you are a caretaker of children, that the house is a little less empty. Maybe you’ve suddenly taken on a new role yourself as a teacher by home-schooling. Perhaps those dusty cookbooks have been drawn from their shelves to whip up some homespun meals. Maybe you’ve even helped fit out the family in some (not-so-) trendy sweatshirts to wear on your daily walk or bike ride. If so, you’re not alone.
The year I graduated high school – 1989 - Arlie Hochschild’s ground-breaking book, ‘The Second Shift’, addressed what most knew already: our gender largely affects if we help with housework or take it on as that ‘second shift’. You might think we’ve moved beyond that line of thought, haven’t we? Well, sociologically speaking, we haven’t really.
And as useful as wielding a bottle of disinfectant is, it’s not a genetic predisposition; we learn how to ‘do gender’ in our families. In Australia, women generally still do the heavy lifting domestically, including with parenting.
Historically, this also relates to what sociologists call the structure of workplaces. If our jobs demand we work somewhere beyond our home, then the little, incidental time a parent has to connect with their children tends to be less. This all gets flipped on its head when, suddenly, we’re told stay at home (if your job allows or demands).
So, as we celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Families, it’s timely to ask: has the restructuring of work affected how we’ve done gender at home? Anecdotally, I’ve heard fathers in many walks of life proclaiming newfound connections with their children and significant other. I’ve heard others counting down until they can get back in the office.
Should Australian workplaces better embrace flexibility, regardless of their employees’ gender, for parenting or other caretaking? Although having time with family ranks highly as a work-life balance indicator, employees seeking greater job flexibility still risk professional and cultural stigmatisation. This is most unfortunate because happier employees are a greater asset to their employers and their communities and families.
Productivity derives from passion, as the adage, ‘love your job and you’ll never work another day in your life’ attests. For some, full-time caring is their life passion. For others, it’s being an advertising executive. The equity we ought to strive for should be, well, equitable.
It’s time to ditch notions of the ‘mummy track’ for good, regardless if it’s mum or dad trying to juggle the twins whilst teleconferencing. Let’s make families a national priority by implementing policies borne out by the lessons from COVID-19.