Gender equality in the workplace is an ongoing issue. Even before COVID-19, women continued to make less, face discrimination during and after pregnancy, and struggle to land leadership positions in companies. Then, along came the pandemic, and remote work. For many women, it was another setback on the road to gender equality. Yet the move to remote and hybrid work environments isn’t all bad for women, either.
First, some good news. According to data from the Pew Research Center, “on average, females make only three percent less than men online, compared to approximately 20-25 percent less in most Western economies.”
With telework, women stand to benefit from more gender-balanced career paths and reduced earnings inequalities, according to Era Nabla-Norris, division chief of the International Monetary Fund.
Throughout the pandemic, a London Business School professor of strategy and entrepreneurship surveyed both women and men about “the great work-from-home experiment.” In January 2021, women were more enthusiastic about remote work than men. “Women rated the impact of remote working on their productivity, decision making, and communication significantly more positively than men,” Julian Birkinshaw and co-authors noted in Forbes.
This is despite the fact that when remote work started some were concerned it would perpetuate existing challenges. However, in the London research at least, women were:
- “Significantly more positive than men about the chairing of meetings online”;
- “Notably more positive than men that remote working ‘ensures all team members can contribute to meetings.’”
They also found online meetings had “more structure, and less scope for grandstanding, idle banter, and aggressive behavior,” which tend to favor men.
Challenges to work-life balance
Work-life balance is always a challenge for women. In theory, remote work can afford women greater flexibility to both raise a family and pursue a career. With more control of their hours, they are able to do work when it suits both them and the company, and have a better work-life balance.
Plus, data also suggests that working from home during the pandemic may make fathers more involved. In a study on behalf of the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation, men reported doing more household chores and spending more time with children than before the pandemic.
Nevertheless, a Deloitte survey of 400 women in nine countries concluded, “For many working women, the pandemic is upending their work/life balance and affecting their physical and mental health, and some are even questioning their current and long-term career prospects.”
Yes, remote working arrangements give women more time in the day, since they don’t have to commute. However:
- 65 percent had more responsibility for household chores;
- 46 percent reported feeling a need to always be available from a work perspective;
- 27 percent have less time to prioritize their health and well-being.
The downside for women with remote work
Thus, remote work remains a “mixed blessing” for women in McKinsey and Co.’s estimation. Yes, it “enables independent work and more flexible hours — as well as productivity, with less time wasted commuting.”
Yet, in a separate McKinsey analysis focused on gender equity, the authors noted, “Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses.”
Why? Several reasons the McKinsey authors offered:
- “The female workforce in many economies is more highly concentrated in occupational clusters like healthcare, food services, and customer service that have a relatively low potential for remote work”;
- “The virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women”;
- Women’s entrepreneurship is suffering too as the crisis has made resources scarce to launch a new initiative;
- Societal expectations in some regions are that men have more rights to jobs when positions are scarce.
The risk of progress reversal is real
Researchers examining the impact of the pandemic and remote work on gender equity generally agree on one thing. Citing McKinsey, again, “Without intervention to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women, there’s a risk that progress could go into reverse.”
At the beginning of 2021, women made up the majority of the U.S. workforce (50.4 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). By mid-April, women’s employment had dropped to mid-1980s levels.
Many in the gender equity fight are calling for structural changes. As Melinda Gates noted in a discussion with the BBC, “I hope COVID-19 forces us to confront how unsustainable the current arrangement is — and how much we all miss out on when women’s responsibilities at home limit their ability to contribute beyond it. The solutions lie with governments, employers, and families committed to doing things more equitably.”
Other workforce experts note the potential for the disparity in the hybrid model that is gaining popularity. If women are working substantially from home while men go in more days a week, that could adversely affect the woman’s career if employers don’t recognize the onus is on them to build a new cultural model for their organizations.
Deloitte recommends making flexible working the norm. A “necessity for all,” flex work is more than #WFH. “It can mean working arrangements that enable the individual to have a manageable work/life balance and still benefit the business — whether that be reduced work hours; working longer, but fewer days each week; or job sharing.” Additionally, Deloitte encourages employers to make training, networking, and mentorship available in a way that accommodates different schedules and needs.
Addressing the gender equity issue
Whether or not your organization is returning to full-time in the office, embracing hybrid work options, or continuing with remote work, steps can be taken to help progress in gender equity. Recognizing inclusion and diversity should be non-negotiable in your work culture.
Want to find out how your employees feel about remote work and gender equity? We can help. Sogolytics offers the tools you need to solicit feedback.