The cost of remote work: is it higher for women?

Naz Beheshti* asks if the new hybrid workplace could turn some women into second-class employees?

Many Workplace Trends from 2020 and 2021 will continue in 2022.

Not only does the Omicron variant remind us that Covid-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, but our ideas about work are changing, and in some cases permanently.

One trend that is likely to persist for some time is the emergence of the hybrid workplace, with employees having the option of working in the office and remotely.

The freedom to continue to work remotely is being touted as a boon for women, allowing them to design their own solutions to the increasingly difficult challenge of balancing work and private life.

But what if choosing to work remotely brings freedom but also comes at a cost?

What if women (and others opting for remote work) sacrifice career opportunities in the process?

The effect of the pandemic on working women

It is worth briefly reflecting on some of the ways the pandemic has taken its toll on working women, mothers in particular:

  • Working mothers drastically reduce their working hours while shouldering a disproportionate share of caregiving and other domestic responsibilities.
  • At the height of the first wave, women left the workforce four times more than men, prompting some to call the pandemic America’s first female recession.
  • More than a third of women who quit or lost their jobs during the pandemic have not returned.
  • One in four women in the corporate world is considering downsizing or leaving the workforce altogether.

Taken together, these changes could reverse decades of progress made by working women.

Women have lost 2.4 million jobs since February 2020, and female labor force participation is now where it was in the 1980s.

Women and remote work

There are clear gender dynamics when choosing the remote work option.

In a survey last year, 19% of women said they never wanted to return to work in person, compared to just 7% of men.

A more recent LinkedIn survey found that women are 26% more likely than men to apply to work remotely.

Other research finds that women want to work from home 50% more than men among college graduates with young children.

Unexpectedly, the freedom to work remotely is not keeping women in the workforce as much as one might think.

According to a study conducted by the United States

Census Bureau, women with access to remote work are quitting their jobs in greater numbers.

Misty Heggeness, who led the study, said the current childcare crisis means working remote mothers continue to have to juggle caregiving and work and in many cases this just becomes too much.

These working mothers “experienced large amounts of exhaustion because the multitasking was way too intense.”

The “penalty” of remote work

What about women who think the remote option works for them? It seems like this option can be a mixed blessing.

For one thing, 97% of C-suite professionals say women in their organizations benefit from being able to work from home.

On the other hand, more than 70% of executives say remote and flexible employees can be overlooked for leadership roles.

“There’s a promotion penalty for people who work offsite,” says Colleen Ammerman, director of Harvard Business School’s Gender Initiative.

If the pattern of women choosing to work remotely in greater numbers continues, it could “be a way to rationalize the persistence of gender inequality in the workplace.”

Be intentional about hybrid work culture

According to experts, the solution is to level the playing field for remote and flexible employees:

  • Adjust performance reviews to ensure they don’t overvalue face-to-face time and disadvantage remote employees.
  • Etsy encourages in-person meetings to be held in a “Prime Time” window between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. so that hybrid employees have a better chance of attending.
  • Etsy executives have also pledged to work remotely at least some of the time to reduce “proximity bias.”

The best way to make the hybrid option work for everyone is for everyone to participate.

Business leaders should be aware of the unforeseen downsides of the remote work option, says Brigid Schulte of New America’s Better Life Lab (a nonprofit committed to justice and equity in the workplace) , and intentional about how they oversee a hybrid workplace.

Only then can we prevent the second-class status of working women from becoming institutionalized.

Leaders should do everything possible “to avoid creating a two-tier workforce where in-person employees have more access to special projects, raises and promotions,” Schulte says.

In 1988, the New York Times coined the term “mommy track” to describe an emerging two-tier system in the legal profession.

Advances intended to help women — like flexible work hours and generous maternity leave — were actually costing women partnerships, choice assignments, and stature.

Women who took advantage of these options were perceived as less serious, less committed, less ambitious.

The status of women in the workplace has changed a lot since then.

It would be a shame if an unintended legacy of the pandemic were to reverse this hard-won progress.

*Naz Beheshti is an executive wellness coach and consultant.

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