26 Nov 2020

A fine line between the private and the public spheres

By Sylvie Paycha

The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the borders between the private and the public spheres, at least for the rather privileged part of the population I belong to. We academics have been fortunate enough to be able to work from home, while the pandemic prevented many around the world from working for their daily subsistence.

Working from home requires managing your professional life without too much interference from your surroundings. Taking part in an online meeting, which has now become a daily activity of an academic, can be tricky. While you are trying to formulate an answer, the other participants might hear your baby crying in the background or asking you to accompany them to the toilet. Or the doorbell ringing with insistence, obliging you to interrupt your talk and open the door as to not let the audience have to bear the background ringing while you speak.

Teaching online takes us through our computer screens into our students’ homes.

Teaching online, another of our present main occupations takes us through our computer screens into our students’ homes. Personal difficulties can suddenly interfere with their studies, revealing information they might want to keep private; they have just lost the job that funded their studies, their visa cannot be renewed due to the shut-down, they have to look after their siblings who cannot go to school during lockdown. Parents who were asked to work from home have had to do homeschooling, acting as substitute teachers for their children during the pandemic. Schooling suddenly became part of the private sphere and parents had to fit in short periods during homeschooling to comply with their professional obligations. Family, personal and professional schedules have intertwined. Professional constraints have infiltrated our personal schedules and the fine line between our personal time and that of our public life has become tenuous.

The fine line between our personal time and that of our public life has become tenuous.

Beyond the professional constraints, our personal lives have also suffered from intrusions. At the doctor’s surgery, prior to an examination, we can be asked to fill in a form reporting whether we have been in contact with people from “risky regions”. The sanitary regulations in force can prevent us from travelling to visit a relative in need of our support. They impose a distance far beyond the “social distancing” now so familiar to us. Our private lives, where we have been, whom we have seen lately is out there, has become public knowledge. The right to confidentiality and privacy has been breached.

The interweaving of the private and public spheres is something that women, who traditionally had to juggle work and family obligations, had long faced before the pandemic. In the Soviet Union, Russian women mathematicians used to joke that a bag left at a conference with a bunch of leeks sticking out could only belong to one of the rare female participants. At a time when vegetables were a scarce commodity, a woman would make sure that she bought vegetables for the evening meal before the meeting she had to attend that day. It is hardly conceivable that a man could have taken that precaution and come along to the meeting with the food in his briefcase. Yet with the pandemic, some men have suddenly been confronted with the intrusion of their private lives into their professional realm. Another question is whether this could change their attitude towards family obligations that generally interfere with women’s professional lives.

The boundary that women have been working to clarify and strengthen for generations is blurred…Their conquests remain very fragile, all the more so after the devastating effects of the pandemic on the economy and society. 

The boundary between private and public that women have been working to clarify and strengthen for generations is blurred. Among many other struggles, women have been fighting for better control over their own bodies via contraception and the right for abortion, women have been fighting to make child-rearing a public issue and not only their private concern. These conquests remain very fragile, all the more so after the devastating effects of the pandemic on the economy and society.

Curiously, the pandemic crisis, which has made the boundary between the private and public spheres so tenuous, also puts a protective shield between the two via our computer screens. As much as they can put our privacy in the spotlight, they can also protect women from direct exposure to the outside world by filtering and mitigating attacks they might face in their professional lives. Talking through a screen requires making clear statements in the absence of body language. Hence the need for structured communication, which can prevent the verbal micro-aggressions that women often face.

Curiously, the pandemic crisis, which has made the boundary between the private and public spheres so tenuous, also puts a protective shield between the two via our computer screens.

Screens can act as buffers, as their presence can relieve external pressure. Behind your screen, you don’t need to answer a sensitive question or an unpleasant e-mail on the spot, you can turn off your computer and take your time to think. Taking the time to test ideas behind before sharing them can be beneficial for women who tend to be intimidated by the apparent assertiveness of their male fellows. Research is about crossing the boundaries of knowledge and getting out of one’s comfort zone, which may be easier for a woman to do behind her screen than in the presence of her peers, among whom she often feels like an impostor.

So, one might ask: do we women scientists need to hide behind a screen to feel protected from the intrusions and aggressions of the outside world to think more freely?