The opportunity to work from home has long been considered a big equaliser for women. Traditionally, more women than men – particularly those with children or caring responsibilities – have requested flexible working. And now, the shift to home-working triggered by the pandemic has resulted in a culture change which may well see remote work become the norm.
However, careers experts have warned that remote working may not actually close the gender divide, or reduce the impact of the ‘motherhood penalty’ experienced by many women. Rather, remote working models may lead to greater inequality as women become less visible in the workplace – and are left shouldering household chores while trying to work remotely.
On paper, it’s hard to deny the benefits of remote work. Given women’s disproportionate share of family responsibilities, it makes sense that a more flexible schedule would be attractive. The ability to work from home means less time wasted commuting, greater autonomy and the ability to pick and choose your working hours and breaks, without having to worry about a boss watching.
All of these can give women – especially mothers – an advantage in the workplace, allowing them to balance their careers with caregiving. In 2017, researchers at the University of Kent found that greater flexibility can help women stay in employment after the birth of their first child. Mothers with access to home-working were also less likely to reduce their working hours after childbirth.
Without a traditional work environment, though, women may miss out on interactions with colleagues or managers that can lead to opportunities, progression and promotion. More often than not, it takes more than hard work to advance at work – you need to be in the right place at the right time. And sometimes, it is those seemingly trivial, in-person water-cooler moments that can get you noticed.
“There is a sense that being out of sight is out of mind. If you are not visible, people forget that you are there,” says Jane Ferré, an executive career coach and mentor.
Research has shown a correlation between having a physical presence at work and career advancement. So while remote work may help women stay in the workforce, it may be costly too.
While many employees are happy to continue working from home for the foreseeable, not everyone feels the same way. Often, remote working can blur the boundaries of our personal and professional lives, leaving us exhausted and burned out. Many businesses are hoping to resolve the issue by bringing in a hybrid working model, which allows staff to split their time between home and the office, as they see fit.
While giving employees a choice is a fair approach, it may well lead to a gender divide in many offices. A recent survey of 2,300 UK leaders, managers and employees showed that 69% of mothers want to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, compared to 56% of fathers.
If more women choose to work remotely, offices may become increasingly dominated by men. Women’s visibility and chances for progression may be hindered further, undoing years of progress in boosting their workplace representation. Meanwhile, their male peers may reap the benefits of having a higher profile.
“Generally speaking, men prefer to be back in the office,” says Ferré. “This could become more prevalent as we approach the lifting of lockdown. If the office is to become primarily a male zone, this could start to become the norm.”
Shouldering household chores
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption to the workforce, leaving millions with reduced hours or jobless, women are disproportionately carrying the burden. Many economists have dubbed the economic downturn a ‘she-cession’ for multiple reasons, including high levels of redundancies in female-dominated industries, and childcare responsibilities falling predominantly on women.
“Women generally take on more caring responsibilities in the home,” says Ferré. “This has only increased due to the pandemic with many taking the majority of the homeschooling responsibilities as well as caring for elderly relatives and neighbours.”
While it might be the case that home-working helps mothers to juggle work and childcare, research suggests that it also leads them to do a disproportionate amount of housework and child care compared to fathers.
Last year, Yale researchers found that mothers who worked from home spent an extra 49 minutes per day on housework compared with telecommuting fathers. Although it may seem inconsequential, women lost $660 (£476) a year in potential earnings due to time spent on housework. This translated to more than $2,600 (£1,877) per year for those who worked from home four days a week.
“You can imagine that you’re trying to juggle child care and your job, and your attention is divided while you’re trying to work,” said Thomas Lyttelton, the lead author of the study. “We don’t have a way of quantifying how that affects mothers’ productivity, but we think that this is probably consequential.”
Addressing post-pandemic inequalities
Despite these setbacks, cracking down on remote working isn’t the answer. Forcing women to work in offices will only exacerbate existing inequalities by shutting them out of the workforce entirely. Instead, it’s essential for employers to challenge long-standing biases towards ‘in-office’ employees and those who choose to work remotely.
“There is not one silver bullet that is going to solve this problem for women,” says Ferré. “On a societal level, there needs to be a change to how women's roles are perceived, we need to reduce the imbalance that exists in caring responsibilities and make it more acceptable for men to take on a larger share. There also needs to be more provision for child care and caring for elderly relatives.”
On an organisational level, employers need to adapt the way that they do business. “With the increase in digital technology and the change in type of work, so much work gets done outside of these hours and we don't need to be chained to the office to do it,” Ferré adds.
Crucially, organisations need to be aware of any bias towards male or in-office workers when it comes to promotions, raises or opportunities for progression. Coaching, mentoring or sponsorship can help women navigate the additional challenges they face in the workplace too.
“It's not all doom and gloom, some women have flourished whilst working remotely and their skills are more relevant in the online world,” says Ferré. “For example, chairing online meetings giving attendees the opportunity to speak in turn rather than focusing on the loudest person. Organisations can continue to work in this way.”