Women and the balance between work and home care: what the pandemic can teach us

A joint research project between Università Cattolica and the Politecnico di Milano School of Management to study the impact of Covid-19 on the life of working women


Since March 2020, the CAREER (CARE for womEn woRk) project, funded by Fondo Integrativo Speciale per la Ricerca and stemming from the collaboration between Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (“Carlo Dell’Aringa”-CRILDA University Research Centre for Family Studies and Labour) and Politecnico di Milano School of Management (Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering Department), has been investigating the experiences of working women during the pandemic to identify areas of intervention and solutions. The project involves 14 researchers from Milan’s two universities. On Wednesday 1 December, the first results were presented at the event “Women and the balance between work and home care. What the pandemic can teach us”.

As a result of the project, the managers in charge, Claudia Manzi, Professor of Social Psychology at Università Cattolica, and Cristina Rossi-Lamastra, Professor of Business and Industrial Economics at Politecnico di Milano, have drawn up an extremely complex picture of the working conditions faced by women in the last year and a half.

Working from home during the pandemic has had two-fold consequences and effects on working women. On the one hand, it has provided an opportunity to improve their work-life balance and their work performance. On the other, the gender bias sees women handling most domestic and family affairs (virtually single-handedly), thus restricting their work-family balance to a single sphere, the domestic one. This has had negative consequences not so much on the work performance of working women, but on their levels of stress and mental well-being.

As Professor Manzi of Università Cattolica states: “The underlying cause of this situation may be found in a combination of cultural, relational, logistical and organisational preconceptions. From a cultural point of view, the still largely unconscious adoption of stereotypical prejudices on the role of women in the work world and in the family sphere has undoubtedly been a major obstacle for women workers.”

Such stereotypes,” says Professor Rossi-Lamastra, “result in an unequal allocation of resources. Through the CAREER project, we have seen that, when working from home, women are generally allocated a less adequate work space than men.”

Gender stereotypes have also been aggravated by a number of further situations: little and ill-formulated support from institutions and organisations, and in some cases, lack of support from partners, in addition to inadequate work spaces in the home.

The picture drawn by the research is certainly a complex one, but given how the world of work is evolving in Italy, if we are to promote and sustain female labour force participation then we need to take a less simplistic view of working from home. Above all, we need to develop a stronger sense of identity among working women in terms of their role within organisations and within society as a whole. Working from home should not become a way of preventing women from fulfilling their professional life and their identity as female workers.

The CAREER (CARE for womEn woRk) research project is still ongoing. For more information, please visit the official website at: https://projectcareer.it/

Also worthy reading are some more in-depth articles about the project recently published by Il Sole 24 Ore and IoDonna


Flexibility, technology, responsibility. Smart working is the future

The word of the moment? Smart, without a doubt. In our pockets or handbags, we all have a smartphone, if we talk about the future, we have in mind the smart city and, when we it comes to the subject of work, there’s smart working.

The Politecnico di Milano already a decade ago, when people were starting to talk about “agile work” and “flexible work”, carried out a specific study on the issue, coming up with the definition of a model “labelled” smart working, which went beyond the concept of teleworking with which it often, mistakenly is used as a synonym. «“Agile work” was born with the aim of reconciling private and work life, in particular to ensure equal opportunity, while smart working involves organizational models and related changes dictated by new technologies – explains Mariano Corso, scientific head of the HR Innovation Practice Observatory and the Smart Working Observatory and professor of Leadership AND Innovation at the Politecnico di Milano –.Smart working is a model of work organization based on greater autonomy for the worker who, taking full advantage of the opportunities of technology, redefines the hours, places and in part the tools of his or her profession. It’s an articulated concept, which is based on critical thinking that restores autonomy to the worker in exchange for accountability on results, while telework involves constraints and is subject to controls on compliance».

Understood in its essence, smart working, overcoming for the first time the barrier between self-employment and subordinated employment, was inserted in the Jobs Act as a efficiency improvement measure for companies and not as a measure of reconciliation between work and private life, even though there is a clear advantage for the worker, for example in limiting travel.

But is it possible to implement smart working in all sectors? «Clearly it works best in the area of information work, clerical and computerized work, but manufacturing also now offers wide possibilities for the application of the principles of autonomy and responsibility – responds Mariano Corso –. In addition, according to the Politecnico’s Smart Working Observatory, about 60% of medium-large companies in Italy have introduced smart working initiatives, while the phenomenon appears quite limited among small companies due to a delay of a cultural-management nature.
Smart working requires a new leadership style with mature managers able to plan activities, monitor results and provide feedback. It should be introduced by working on organizational policies and on the correct reprogramming of available technology and the logic of physical spaces».

When you talk about smart working, what immediately comes to mind are countries that are more advanced than ours in the organization of work, like Scandinavian ones. Is that correct? «At an international level we see lots of concepts tied to that which we label as smart working, which however in many cases, especially in North Europe, originate more from the world of conciliation than in increasing competitiveness – responds Mariano Corso –In this sense, the United Kingdom and Netherlands have adopted a very strong and cogent legislation for companies. Then we have countries that traditionally have a high degree of flexibility in the labour force and make significant use of telework, like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic. Something more like smart working we find in Belgium, however also in this case we don’t find a regulatory framework like the Italian one, in which, with a revolutionary scope, we see many of the rigidities of subordinated employment overcome».

Smart working is good for the world of work, but not only. It is part of a fundamental and desirable transition process towards a policy of attention to the environment. One of the concepts at the basis of smart working, as is the case for the smart city, is the optimal use of resources and spaces. In addition to limiting travel with a consequent reduction in CO2 emissions, smart working can provide emergency responses, from the reduction of depopulation in some areas of the Trentino area to the reorganization of work in the city of Genoa following the collapse of the Morandi Bridge.