Is Remote Work Truly Good for Women?

Women have hungered for flexibility in their work lives for decades as they’ve struggled with superwoman expectations that suggested they could leap to the top of the career ladder while toting a toddler, caring for aging parents and getting dinner on the table by six with little support from social or workplace systems.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some of that flexibility into the workplace, it has also dealt a severe blow to women’s professional progress. Research from McKinsey & Company has revealed one in four women considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers due to a daunting array of always-on responsibilities at work and at home.
While flexible and remote work arrangements are often hailed as the panacea for helping women juggle their multiple roles and accelerate their advancement, are they really the slam dunk we hope them to be?
Craving flexibility
A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 1,200 office workers in the U.S. found that 72% wanted to continue working from home at least two days a week and about a third wanted to work from home permanently. In a survey by theSkimm, nearly two-thirds of millennial women respondents said they view remote work as a priority and 22% said they would no longer consider working for an employer if working from home was not an option.
Employees enjoy the lack of commute, cost savings on car-related expenses, more relaxed dress codes, time savings, and a more flexible work day. Many employers have seen productivity increases, less absenteeism and greater employee satisfaction as well. But, no one knows for sure yet whether the benefits will last over the long haul and if they might be overshadowed by a different set of challenges.
Too good to be true?
In their Harvard Business Review article, “Why WFH Isn’t Necessarily Good for Women,” a team of business experts and academics that included the former Prime Minister of Australia, Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup and a Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School warn that several aspects of remote work can be particularly difficult for women. They aren’t advocating against it, but caution women and employers to watch out for what they call three potential “trip wires.” They include:
  1. More work/family conflict. Previous studies have shown that company practices designed to increase flexibility and provide greater work/life balance often just result in employees working more. That’s especially true for men (with or without children) and for professional women without children. But professional women with children, the data show, often cannot meet that “always on” ethos of remote work. A “flexible” workday with no end can backfire for women already carrying the lion’s share of domestic duties.
  1. Decreased access to informal networking and mentoring. We know from McKinsey & Company’s research and others that women already receive less of the mentoring and manager support that grows careers than men do. If women take advantage of remote work options more often than their male counterparts, gender-based inequality around access to informal networks and coaching may also widen.
The situation is especially challenging for Black women. The 2020 Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey & Company says, Black women “. . . are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to say their manager advocates for new opportunities for them. And they have fewer interactions with senior leaders, which means they often don’t get the sponsorship and advocacy they need to advance.”
  1. Out of sight, out of mind. Even in companies where remote work is widely embraced, most will likely maintain physical workspaces as well. If men, who typically have greater freedom from domestic responsibilities, opt to disproportionately work from the office or continue an aggressive travel schedule, will their contributions be more visible than colleagues only heard or seen on Zoom calls? The authors call this a new form of “presenteeism” where face time could take on outsized importance. They also caution that impromptu decision-making and informal rapport-building is more likely in a physical environment, giving those “in the room” greater influence.
Move forward with intention
A strategic approach is needed to capitalize on the potential advantages of remote work without putting yourself or women you lead at a disadvantage. That includes looking to the data to track career progress among people at various levels of the organization working in person and remotely; developing more effective ways to evaluate contribution rather than face time; and normalizing and de-stigmatizing remote work by rooting out unconscious bias that rewards people for “showing up” and ensuring that senior leaders, especially men, also take advantage of remote work options.

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