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Remote work has been praised with many merits, such as increased productivity, greater employee happiness and improved work-life balance. However, there is one aspect in remote work where its positive impact on employee lives is highly disputed, and that is where gender equality is concerned.
Despite global efforts, the gender gap is only closing at a very slow pace. Women are still less likely to be promoted, are underrepresented in leadership positions, get paid less and experience disadvantages after having kids. In a survey carried out by Pew Research Center, 51% of mothers claimed to find it harder to advance their career being a mom - compared to only 16% of working fathers. The same study also showed that women were much more likely than men to have family-related career interruptions.
News headlines such as “Women face a double disadvantage in the hybrid workplace” or “Experts worry remote work may hurt women’s career advancement” make it clear that the correlation between teleworking and gender equality must be evaluated critically. But what is the real impact of remote work on women? And what does it mean for HR and business leaders?
Before analyzing the impact of remote work on gender (in)equality, let’s look at how the female part of the workforce thinks about remote work. There are several studies showing a clear difference between the genders when it comes to telecommuting.
Women are hence more inclined to choose remote work or hybrid models than men. For instance, a workplace preference survey conducted by Flexjobs revealed that 68% of women preferred working exclusively remotely, compared to only 57% of their male counterparts. The percentage of women considering remote work as a top job benefit is also a lot higher than among men - 80% (women) versus 69% (men).
What’s more, when looking at the perceived advantages of telecommuting, women valued the benefits of remote work higher than men in almost all of the chosen categories. A 2021 LinkedIn study delivered similar results with regard to remote job applications. The data from LinkedIn reveals that women are 26% more likely to apply to remote jobs than men.
Funnily enough, the pandemic showed that access to remote work doesn’t hold women back from quitting their jobs. Well on the contrary. As a study on the impact of increased pandemic-related childcare responsibilities on female remote employees revealed, high numbers of women left their jobs during the pandemic despite being offered remote work options. The main reason being the additional workload related to childcare.
Remote work is often referred to as a game changer for women. The main argument being that working from home increases flexibility and allows working mothers to find a way to combine their work with their duties as family caregiver. Not only is this perceived as a possible way to improve work-life balance, but it is also regarded as a chance for women to avoid career breaks after childbirth.
In a similar way, remote work is said to lay the ground for a more equitable division of domestic and childcare chores. With flexible working arrangements, fathers could finally be able to be more involved in childcare and at-home labor.
Another argument to support this claim is based on the values represented by remote-first companies. Their values are generally considered to be aligned with modern ideas and conceptions, thus leading the way towards an inclusive workplace where gender discrimination doesn’t have a place anymore.
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Despite the increased flexibility remote work can offer working women, an article published in Forbes raises concerns that “the new hybrid workplace [could] turn some women into second-class employees”. The main argument: Working remotely doesn’t just offer women possibilities to find balance between their work life and their family duties, but it also comes at a cost.
Women traditionally take on more household and childcare chores than men. This still holds true in the 21st century. The 2020 Women in the Workplace Report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org states that women, and even more so mothers, are “1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare - equivalent to 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job”. This uneven distribution became particularly evident during the recent pandemic.
As a result, women feltl a higher pressure to reduce the scale of their occupational duties or give up work completely. In numbers: 17% of mothers were considering reducing their work hours during the pandemic, compared to only 9% of fathers, as stated in the McKinsey report.
Furthermore, the double pressure of caring for the kids and navigating their professional workload leads to women being more affected by burnout than men. The 2021 version of the McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org report has seen 42% of women with a constant feeling of being burned out, compared to only 35% of men.
Working remotely, thus not being present at the office, reduces the chances of getting a promotion. Or as Colleen Ammerman, the director of Harvard Business School’s gender initiative, said: “There is a promotion penalty for people who work off site”.
Her statement is backed up by research conducted by Egon Zehnder. The management consulting firm found that while 97% of C-suite professionals considered remote work to be beneficial for women, 70% admitted that remote employees were more likely to be passed over for leadership roles due to the lack of physical visibility.
An analysis of the UK’s Office for National Statistics delivered similar results. Their data suggested that remote employees had a 50% lower chance of being promoted than all other employees. The chance of receiving a bonus equally decreased for remote workers, by 38% to be exact.
Wrongful assumptions of lacking commitment among women to their careers and missing networking opportunities are additional factors to consider. For example, an SHRM online survey showed that 23% of female remote workers questioned felt that they were missing out on opportunities to form strong work relationships.
What’s more, teleworking doesn’t put a stop to discrimination and microaggression in the workplace. In fact, discrimination and disrespectful behavior such as continuous interruptions, lack of acknowledgement and questioning expertise continue to be a reality for women when working from home. For example, a Catalyst survey revealed that 45% of women business leaders consider it difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings.
Women in the workplace have suffered more severely under the effects of the pandemic. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, women represent 39% of the global workforce, yet they accounted for 54% of job losses during the pandemic. Moreover, nearly 70% of women who have experienced disruptions during the pandemic are concerned their career progression may slow down as a result, as a Deloitte global survey showed.
As we’re moving out of the pandemic, and remote work and hybrid models become the new normal, HR and business leaders have to ensure telecommuting doesn’t turn into a disadvantage for working women. Being aware of the possible downsides of remote work is the first step. But it takes more than this.
Rather than just acknowledging the possible drawbacks of remote work for women, business leaders need to adopt a proactive attitude and take action to create equal conditions for remote employees and office workers. This includes:
Modifying performance evaluation methods to exclude physical presence time
Scheduling meetings at times that suit all team members, so remote employees can attend too
Avoiding that office workers have privileged access to special projects and promotions (include it in your remote work policies)
Actively fighting “out of side, out of mind” attitudes
Setting up regular meetings between remote employees and managers
Putting the focus on productivity and outcome rather than on hours clocked
Providing managers with special training to help identify and prevent unconscious bias
Remote work can be a double-edged sword for female employees. While it generally comes with many benefits for workers, which are also widely appreciated by women, concerns that remote work could widen the gender gap and thus set back gains in equality are real. Especially under the current circumstances.
With more women opting for remote working arrangements than men, it’s imperative to deconstruct existing mechanisms and biased thinking which favors in-office workers over remote employees. Businesses have their role to play in this and should take action to level the playing field for remote and hybrid workers in their company. Otherwise, the impact on women and gender equality could be severe.
Traditional perceptions of the man as primary breadwinner of the family and the woman as primary childcarer also play a part when it comes to determining whether remote work is a blessing or a burden for women. If working from home results in women struggling to juggle childcare, household duties and work commitments, thus leading to higher burnout rates and a decrease in mental health, then remote work will soon lose its merits.
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