Will the Shift to Remote Work Hurt or Help Gender Equity?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it.
The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.
• Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
• Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.
How Does Remote Work Impact Progress toward Gender Equity?
Remote-first. Remote everything. Digital-by-default. Work-from-anywhere. Operate with no footprint.
Even if your organization isn’t striving to match Facebook’s ambitious plan “to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at [their] scale,” there’s a good chance your org is moving toward remote. A survey published in late May found that 71% of venture capital-backed founders will let some or all of their employees continue to work remotely when restrictions are lifted.
Another survey found that 59% of employees would prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” once restrictions on businesses and school closures are lifted.
Me? I love working from home because I’m able to take end-of-day walks with my daughter, and I am more productive. (My team loves working from home too, and we’ve decided to switch to working remotely after social distancing measures are relaxed.)
However, we can’t let the upside of remote work blind us to its potential downside. Let’s apply the gender lens to remote work to understand how it fits into our journey toward equity for all.
Is the rush to remote work helpful or harmful for gender equity?
The answer to your question is a definitive it depends. Despite all the buzz around the benefits of flexible work arrangements, there’s a possibility that remote work will stunt our forward momentum toward gender equity if the proper infrastructure isn’t in place to support the shift.
Remote and flexible work arrangements have long been cited as key to closing the gender equity gap in the workplace. Here are four common reasons why:
1. Removes the Trailing Spouse Effect
Remote work fills the talent pool with more women who, if married, would be less likely than married men to relocate for their jobs. In other words, being able to work from any geographical location eliminates the “trailing spouse” syndrome.
2. Mitigates Height Bias
Remote work removes height bias, or the fact that your height influences your earning potential and career success. Someone who is six feet tall can expect to earn nearly $166,000 more during a 30-year career than a colleague who is seven inches shorter. Since the average American woman stands nearly 5 feet 4 inches tall while the average American man stands 5 feet 9 inches tall, virtual workplaces could mitigate this bias.
3. Facilitates Work-Life Balance
Remote work helps women balance unpaid labor with paid labor. US women spend, on average, 96 minutes more per day on domestic labor (cooking, cleaning, and caregiving) than US men. Working from home frees women from traditional workday hours that limit their ability to care for the homefront. This is especially true for mothers, 42% of whom cut back on work hours to care for family (versus only 28% of fathers who do the same).
-On a side note: remote work should not be used to enable women’s disproportionate participation in the unpaid workforce; rather, we must support women’s full participation in the paid workforce and ensure they are not edged out of their careers by rising demands on the homefront.
-And another side note: here’s what I have to say about “work-life balance.”
4. Women Want to Work from Home
Remote work is what women want. One study appropriately titled “What Women Want in 2020” found that 98% of women want to work from home at least once a week and 76% want their companies to offer more flexible schedules.
That said, a hasty, poorly-calculated transition to remote work could jeopardize gender equity in the long-term.
Consider the following concerns about remote work and gender equity:
1. Women Become More Invisible
Remote work could make women more invisible—leading to even fewer opportunities for advancement since managers often assign projects to those they can see and have frequent contact with. A lack of regular and frequent face time could lead to an even greater gender promotion gap—and thus greater gender inequity in the C-suite. Plus, only 42% of women feel they have the opportunity to self-promote compared to 58% of men.
(For context: Pre-COVID, only 72 women were promoted and hired to managerial roles for every 100 men promoted and hired, and women comprised only 21% of the C-suite.)
2. Managers Value In-Person Employees More than Remote Employees
When given the choice to work remotely, employees that benefit from more flexible work arrangements (namely pregnant women, mothers, and caregivers) could find that their companies’ well-intentioned policies backfire on them since managers need to be trained to value remote and in-person employees equitably.
3. Inequitable Behavior Goes Unnoticed
It’s difficult to observe and correct inequitable practices when employees are working remotely. Ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and respected in a Zoom call is different than ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and respected in a conference room.
So if we want to ensure the mass migration to remote work doesn’t compromise our journey to gender equity, then we need to account for its potential downsides. How?
We can use AI to embed gender equity into remote talent management so that women aren’t left further behind in our transition to remote work.
AI platforms can ensure that human capital management decisions made across an entire organization are equitable, transparent, data-driven, and free of bias. (Especially pay, performance, potential decisions.)
This approach to talent management removes the ambiguities and biases that are prevalent in human management processes. It also replaces informal or relationship-based promotion opportunities with objective, data-driven decision-making.
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