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Abstract

According to Working Mother magazine, telecommuting is a “wonderful arrangement for working moms.” Advertisements for telecommuting jobs and related technologies show us pictures of these happy telecommuting moms, who are conducting important business on the telephone or typing busily at their computers, as their smiling toddlers play quietly by their sides or sit contentedly in their laps. Some employers have offered this wonderful experience in direct response to concerns raised by “women's issues” committees. That was probably just what Jack Nilles had in mind when he first coined the term “telecommuting” in the 1970s and described it as a way to make life better for women with primary childcare responsibility. Feminist legal scholars recently have joined these pro-telecommuting ranks by advocating telecommuting as one way to restructure the workplace away from male worker norms and toward a greater equality for women workers. To the extent that these telecommuting advocates have gone beyond just painting idyllic images, they have theorized two related “gender-equalizing” effects. First, advocates predict that telecommuting will help decrease the gendered division of labor in the paid labor market by decreasing the existing sex segregation and sex-based hierarchy in the workplace. Women are overrepresented in low-paid, low-status jobs, often in service, clerical, and sales positions. Although approximately 46% of the American workforce is made up of women with virtually the same education and skills as men, women hold only 5% of all top-level jobs. Telecommuting advocates predict that telecommuting will change this situation and allow women access to a wider range of jobs, including high-level management and executive positions, by providing a more effective way to combine waged work with domestic responsibilities. Proponents suggest that telecommuting will be particularly effective if it allows women to remain continuously employed, without interruptions during childbearing and early childrearing years. Second, advocates predict that telecommuting will decrease the gendered division of unpaid labor in the home. Despite the dramatic increase in the proportion of women in the paid labor force in the last twenty-five years, American women still perform 80% of childcare and two-thirds of core household tasks. Women's entry into the paid workforce has not led to an equitable redistribution of unpaid work in the home, as women typically add market labor to their existing domestic responsibilities, rather than shifting unpaid work to men. Telecommuting advocates predict that telecommuting will change this situation by reintegrating “work” *265 and “home” and facilitating a more egalitarian division of domestic labor. As male telecommuters are able to substitute childcare for commute time, women workers should be able to devote more time to their paid work. In the long-run, advocates suggest that telecommuting will facilitate an even more fundamental restructuring of the workplace, as employers no longer have an available workforce of “ideal workers” who have no commitments outside of their market work. To make these predictions, telecommuting proponents must assume that technological innovation will act as an independent variable in social and organizational change. In other words, these advocates believe that new technology has the power to modify existing employment structures and gender roles. Proponents rarely contemplate the possibility that telecommuting arrangements will vary for members of different groups according to existing power structures, resources, and the relative status of job categories within firms: i.e., they rarely contemplate the power of the status quo. Unfortunately, these telecommuting advocates are ignoring a growing body of sociological research that reveals a much less uniformly positive picture. Contrary to predictions, research on the performance of paid work from home indicates that, for many women, telecommuting is actually increasing gender inequality both in the workplace and in the home. Many women telecommuters are finding themselves in exploitative working conditions, as telecommuting arrangements are linked to contingent work status, lower pay, the loss of benefits, less job security, and fewer training and advancement opportunities. As telecommuting reduces women's already low level of labor market power, it simultaneously exacerbates women's work/family conflicts, as women end up taking on even more carework and domestic tasks. For many women who face the greatest conflicts between waged and unwaged work, telecommuting technology has not acted as an independent variable to restructure the workplace around a caregiving worker norm, but instead has been adapted to and shaped by the status quo. More specifically, the data shows that telecommuting is working more like a dependent variable: employers are using existing power structures to co-opt the use of telecommuting technology to ultimately magnify the gender divides in both paid and unpaid work. If the underlying assumptions about the inherently positive effects of telecommuting continue to go unchallenged, telecommuting will likely become for many women a second generation “mommy track” that provides flexibility at the price of marginalization. This result is only inevitable, however, if the implementation of telecommuting is left entirely in the hands of employers. Work/family conflict scholars and other telecommuting advocates are correct that new technology has the potential to advance women's workplace equality and improve women's economic position. But that potential is not inherent in the technology itself. The sociological research suggests that the gender-equalizing potential of new technologies may be realized only through external controls on the way in which that technology is introduced into the workplace.

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