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Employee Surveillance Is a Working Mom’s Nightmare

6 minute read
Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code and Moms First and the author of Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It's Different Than You Think)

With more than two years of remote work under our belts, many moms have become accustomed to our kids or our pets following us around the house. Now, however, it’s not just those with whom we share our homes constantly wanting to know what we’re doing. It’s also our bosses.

Just last month, the New York Times reported that a Texas company took photos of its remote employees and screenshots of their computers every 10 minutes and used that information to determine pay and productivity. Even stepping away from the computer to use the bathroom might mean employees would receive smaller checks.

Workplace surveillance is on the rise in the United States in what’s becoming the worst version of “new normal” imaginable. According to one market research firm, 60% of employers with more than 1,000 employees used tools to track their workers by the end of 2021. Other surveys have reported even higher numbers.

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Whatever the actual percentage, it’s clear that this dystopian monitoring is widespread and, sadly, not going anywhere. It’s also a working mom’s hell.

Apparently, many companies believe it’s necessary and acceptable for our bosses to keep track of every instance that we pause our work to parent during the workday—and use what they see to determine our productivity. Putting a load of laundry in between meetings? Might come up in your next performance review. Packing a kid’s lunch before the bus comes? God forbid you spend too much time preparing that PB&J, or you can kiss your next raise goodbye. One friend’s boss even instructed her to clock out while breastfeeding—proof that many “family friendly” workplaces aren’t all that friendly at all.

Tracking keyboard strokes, mouse movements, and employees themselves through their computer cameras, often without their knowledge or consent; installing facial-recognition technology to ensure employees don’t look away from the screen for too long—none of this cultivates a culture of trust or respect. On the contrary, these practices dehumanize employees and set a harmful expectation that work—specifically, paid work—should come before all else, including your kids.

Read More: How the Pandemic Could Finally End the Mommy Wars

But while every employee will suffer the consequences of this Orwellian nightmare, workplace surveillance is especially bad for workers with low incomes, mothers, and the women of color who disproportionately reside at the center of that Venn diagram.

Women—and especially women of color and women with low income—are most vulnerable to this secretive surveillance because we’re already at a major disadvantage when it comes to digital literacy. That’s partly why I founded Girls Who Code a decade ago, to empower girls and women to enter male-dominated STEM fields; after all, the more women know about tech, the less it can be used to hurt us.

This new form of surveillance also will inevitably exacerbate the motherhood penalty, which contributes to the infuriatingly persistent gender wage gap. It’s a pervasive and discouraging struggle: companies pay us less, our bosses question whether we’re striking the right balance between family and career and penalize us if they decide we’re not, and we internalize all of this to mean we must be failing, too.

Indeed, moms—and often, moms alone—are expected to juggle a never-ending list of ever-changing tasks: finding time between calls to locate baby formula during a national shortage, attending parent-teacher conferences scheduled in the middle of our workdays, and picking our kids up from school in the maddening gap between school and work—or paying exorbitant amounts for childcare instead. When the world shut down in 2020, we shouldered even more of that childcare, providing it at three times the rate of men.

This isn’t feel-good work, nor is it a distraction from our “real jobs”—caretaking is essential to keeping our families, our economy, and our society afloat. So to find out that our employers are punishing us—rather than rewarding us—for doing both is infuriating, and only underscores how little our country values the unpaid, unrecognized labor we take on every single day.

Of course, some moms rebuffed the impossible idea of doing it all and chose to leave the workforce; millions more were forced out, having lost their jobs or childcare or both. Only now, more than two years later, have 25- to-54-year-old women returned to work at pre-pandemic levels.

If there’s an upside to the last few years, it’s that we’ve proven, definitively, that remote work is quality work. It turns out, flexibility helps us and our employers, decreasing stress while increasing productivity.

You know what doesn’t increase productivity? Employee surveillance.

The last thing a mom—or any worker, for that matter—needs to get their job done, is a more rigid, punitive work environment. Instead, employers should motivate their workers by providing the flexibility and understanding we all deserve, rather than punishing parents for parenting—and especially those moms forced to take on a disproportionate amount of it.

Give working moms the benefit of the doubt: if we’re away from our desks, we’re helping with math homework or taking a mental-health walk, not sipping mimosas at brunch. Trust us to get our work done on our terms—and judge us by the merit of that work, not how often we touched the keyboard.

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Better yet, create an infrastructure that doesn’t force us to choose between being a good parent and being a good employee. Companies should subsidize childcare costs, promote flexible work, and offer generous parental leave, sick leave, and health care plans. That’s what will help us be better employees and parents. Plus, it’s the humane thing to do.

As for us moms? In our social circles, we can start by spreading awareness of what this tech is doing—and knowing our rights for privacy protection. And back at work, we should flock to companies who trust and respect their employees, and apply the pressure on employers who don’t. Because, if after the few years we’ve had, they’re still worried about productivity, they need to take a look at their own to-do lists, not ours.

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