e-quality – why hyphenate?

Before criticising the dotcom world for not delivering a better deal for women, we should interrogate what this better deal might be.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

I’m a professional woman, I work in a dotcom, and I want to have kids. Can I have it all, then, please?

According to some, I could – if only those damn techie companies wised up to their potential for delivering a better balance between work and life, through enabling women to work flexible hours, and to work at home. It’s not equality we’re talking about here, in the sense of women being able to compete with men in the world of work, but e-quality – women using technology to juggle more successfully the demands of work and life.

This is the subject of Helen Wilkinson’s pamphlet, Dot Bombshell: Women, e-quality and the new economy, launched last Thursday in London (1). Taking as her starting point the assertion that ‘the new economy promises a nirvana for women’, Wilkinson quickly concludes that, in reality, work in the new economy is ‘business as usual’, where the new economy replicates working practices and relationships of the ‘old’ economy.

Nothing unexpected there. Only the geekiest of the geeks could argue that the age-old problem of women’s inequality could vanish at the click of a mouse. Yet the interesting thing is not the reality of e-quality and the new economy, but the ideal. Before criticising the dotcom world for not delivering a better deal for women, maybe we should interrogate what this better deal might be.

At the launch of Dot Bombshell, everybody seemed to recognise that the major problem facing working women was childcare. Yet nobody has ever argued that the great thing about the dotcom sector is its ability to provide decent, flexible and affordable childcare for its employees. In fact, given how small many dotcoms are, these are probably the least likely companies to pioneer workplace creches and proper support for working mums. Rather, the excitement about dotcoms comes from the potential they may give to transform working practices.

Wilkinson’s chapter ‘A new era of e-quality?’ claims that Patricia Hewitt, former minister for small business and e-commerce, ‘recognises the internet’s capacity to revolutionise the way we work’, by challenging notions of work and time and redefining the public and private (2). This view is central to the discussion about how the dotcom world could make life better for working women.

Remote working, home-based entrepreneurship, flexible hours – all of these things, which are made more possible through the internet, are considered to have great potential in allowing women (specifically, mothers) to negotiate the balance between work and life (specifically, childcare) more successfully than they are currently able to.

This is certainly a seductive idea. When you think about the stereotype career-mom – spending a big chunk of her salary on childcare, seeing the kids only on the journey to and from childcare and at weekends, up to her arms in guilt and washing up – it’s not nice. When you think about the alternative – stay-at-home-mom or part-time employee, trading time with the kids but never getting more than halfway up the career ladder – that’s not so great either. But creating a seamless transition from the world of work to the work at home? Is that really so desirable?

The advantage of the working day is that you focus on work for a few hours – and then you are free to go home and focus on your kids, partner, lifestyle, whatever. Checking your email with a baby on your breast, surfing the internet while the children watch TV, mentally preparing your priority lists while cooking the tea – it sounds like a very efficient use of time, and means that you can be seen to be doing your job and being there with the kids. But while you might be seen to be doing both, are you really doing either?

‘One of the main factors explaining the rise of female entrepreneurship is the desire to opt out of corporate culture’, explains Wilkinson (3). Maybe they really do want to get out of the office and go it alone – and if they achieve their ambitions that way, great. But maybe their decision is based on pragmatism – that while they would really prefer to be able to work in the office and have the kids taken care of, it’s just too difficult, expensive or unpleasant.

Some jobs are more suited to home-based, self-defined work than others, as are some people. Yet when the range of choices facing working women is so narrow as it currently is, we will never know which choices they take out of pragmatism and practicality, and which they take out of desire and ambition. And nor will we ever know what are the genuine possibilities and pitfalls of the new ways of working allowed for by new technologies.

So give us universal access to childcare – somebody, somehow, but soon. And then we might really learn something about equality, with the hyphen taken out.

(1) Dot Bombshell: Women, e-quality and the new economy, by Helen Wilkinson, published by The Industrial Society, 2001

(2) Dot Bombshell: Women, e-quality and the new economy, p5

(3) Dot Bombshell: Women, e-quality and the new economy, p22

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Topics Politics


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