The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work as we know it. Between flexible work arrangements, part-time contracts, and side gigs, it’s been difficult to gauge just how many people are working from home as a result. But according to Stanford’s research, 42% of the U.S. labor force was working from home full time (with 33% not working at all and 26% working on their business’ premises) as of June 2020.
One study from MIT suggests that closer to half of all Americans employed before the pandemic are now working remotely. And the last 7 months have proven that women are suffering from job loss, bias, and burnout at far higher rates than men.
It’s important to acknowledge these issues – and how it may affect our workplaces – since working from home may become the new normal, even in a post-COVID era.
In February of 2020, women in the U.S. achieved a milestone – they made up half of the nation’s civilian, non-farming workforce.
Beginning in September of 2020, women were forced out of the workforce at four times the rate of men. In that month alone, 865,000 women over age 20 lost jobs in America, according to a report from the Labor Department. Only 216,000 men in the same age group dropped out of the workforce.
A study of over 1,000 working adults conducted by Qualtrics and the Board list revealed that working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed the careers of women, parents, and people of color. It also showed that 57% of men saw remote work as positively affecting their career progression, while only 29% of women could say the same. Not surprisingly, only 46% of women workers with children at home said they had been more productive working at home during the pandemic, compared to 77% of men. And white workers were 62% more likely than Black workers to say they’ve been more productive during the pandemic.
As a telling side note, the same study found that men were four times more likely than women to say their employers placed too much emphasis on women in leadership. That doesn’t bode well for retaining or promoting women or considering the unique challenges they face in this new era of work.
Why women lose out
It’s important to remember that not all working women are mothers and that family caregiving duties can mean elder care. Even in households where caregiving is not an issue, women have shouldered most of the burden of housework and emotional labor.
Of course, flexible work schedules with the option to work at home (and even full-time WFH positions) do benefit some women. We’ve long thought that the option to work from home would be the great equalizer for women in the workplace, allowing them to tend to professional and personal duties without having to choose one over the other.
When all but essential American workers were sent home in March as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, workers hoped that it would provide an opportunity for companies to see that workers could be equally productive with a WFH arrangement and that some of the stigmas of working from home would go away as a result. Even practical matters, like cutting out commuting time, were reasons to celebrate the new arrangement (though not the circumstances that brought it about). And this has certainly come to fruition for some women.
The ugly side of living at work
When schools began to close in March of 2020, suddenly children were home with their parents as they were trying to work. Sharing space and bandwidth was a challenge for just about any home with children in it. Add to that the closure of daycares and families were now trying to lead their entire personal and professional lives under one roof.
Thomas Lyttelton, a Ph.D. candidate in Yale’s Department of Sociology, found in a recent study that while working from home could help mothers, specifically, juggle work and childcare, “it also leads them to do a disproportionate amount of housework and child care compared to fathers.”
The Labor Department also found that married mothers do almost double the How working from home is increasing gender inequality, and how employers can address this of household chores and parenting as married fathers. So imagine the burden single mothers face.
University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson is concerned that “The child care crisis is wreaking havoc on women’s employment.”
It’s no surprise then that flexible working and WFH arrangements have been found to increase work and family conflict. Work becomes part of home life and women never manage to escape the labor and distractions of domestic burdens.
An article in the Harvard Business Review points out “A recurring finding is that women are more likely to carry out more domestic responsibilities while working flexibly, whereas men are more likely to prioritize and expand their work spheres.” It’s easy to see how that can lead to conflict and bitterness.
The Yale study also found that WFH moms were more likely to report feeling depressed, anxious, and lonely than telecommuting dads during the pandemic. But there was no gender gap in anxiety levels among parents who commuted to the workplace.
Of course, women don’t have to be married, or mothers or caregivers of any kind to suffer the inequalities that working from home may inflict.
What benefits and opportunities arise?
There are certainly many workers – of all genders – benefitting greatly from the flexibility that working from home provides.
For example, without employees being bound to a geographical location, employers can potentially tap into a much more diverse workforce by casting a wider recruiting net. And fewer couples will need to make choices about whose career to “follow” when it comes to choosing where to live.
And despite the challenges of homecare duties, there are studies that have shown that WFH’s flexibility allows mothers to continue working normal hours after childbirth – if they wish – letting them maintain well-paying jobs and remaining in the workforce even in more demanding times for their families.
Illuminating these issues and the potential benefits of working from home might also help force structural change in the long-term. Women are crucial to the workforce. If they are to stay employed and contribute to their companies, the challenges faced now might force us to create a better system for childcare, give people the option of flexible work arrangements, and lead to a better appreciation of the labor involved in maintaining a household and caring for dependents. But that may feel like a long way off for women suffering now.
Still, creating a new normal might force us to improve the system altogether.
A report on remote work conducted by Zapier in 2019, prior to the pandemic, found that women were more likely to want to work remotely, but they were less likely to be given the option. Of course, this was before childcare issues forced them to contend with full-time parenting and full-time work.
Still, we will have to find a solution to the education situation. When we do, we may see women regain some of the productivity taken from them.
WFH could affect women’s career advancement
Despite more women seeking flexible arrangements, we haven’t seen this increase the number of women at senior levels. But we have seen better retention of women in lower levels of management. That may be, in part, because face-to-face networking and the mere act of being present leads to the kinds of interactions that help people find mentors and make other connections that benefit their careers. In light of this, we must continue to investigate whether or not working from home will exacerbate inequality in the workplace, especially when it comes to the advancement of women to senior levels.
Ironically, women are working longer hours when they work from home, but it’s only men who have benefitted from working long hours in the past. The BBC found that Catalyst’s studies showed that women’s work performance needs to be vigorous and visible – and they’re more likely to have to “prove themselves” – before they receive the same salary increases and promotions that men do.
“There’s this perception out there that if women were doing exactly the same thing men were doing, that they would advance. And the truth is, no. Women are often held to a much higher standard than men. It’s a very unconscious bias,” Allyson Zimmermann, a director for Catalyst, told the BBC.
This raises the question: will WFH women be out of sight and out of mind when it comes to advancement in the workplace, exacerbating inequalities?
While much of this research focuses on the U.S. and the BBC piece included workers in the U.K., we should make no mistake – these are pertinent issues worldwide.
On economic inequality
If working from home as a result of COVID can reduce earning potential and work opportunities, we could end up with an entire generation of women whose careers suffer just as we were finally making advances in workplace gender equality. And women in a variety of positions are facing this challenge.
A recent report from the United Nations on the impact of the coronavirus on women warned that “Even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. Covid-19 is already having an impact on women in lower income brackets.”
We must remember that working from home is a luxury. Plenty of Americans lack the facilities or sufficient Internet capacity to work from home. Only 65% of U.S. workers reported having fast enough Internet to support video calls, for example. That leaves 35% of Americans with poor connectivity or none at all.
Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom has called the situation “a time bomb for inequality.” His most recent research has shown that:
“…more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home – so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills, and advance their careers. At the same time, those unable to work from home – either because of the nature of their jobs or because they lack suitable space or internet connections – are being left behind. They face bleak prospects if their skills and work experience erode during an extended shutdown and beyond.”
How employers can positively approach working from home
All of this points to a grim future for those without unlimited resources. But that shouldn’t paralyze us into inaction.
Thought leaders Herminia Ibarra, Julia Gillard, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic discussed the challenges of our current situation for women in a piece published in the Harvard Business Review in July of 2020. Luckily, they also suggested some guidelines to help leaders make remote work successful for everyone.
The first step, according to the authors, is to set aside assumptions in favor of data. Every company is different, so collecting and analyzing your data to identify gaps at every level is key in identifying gender gaps exacerbated by working from home. More important, perhaps, is to ensure that the data you analyze matches your company’s culture. Not all workplaces and fields are conducive to having hybrid work models, but when stay-at-home orders can change your business model overnight, it’s best to think in advance about the best ways working from home can benefit both the company and employees. The authors explain:
“Simply put, if culture is ‘How we do things around here,’ then the main question organizations must address is ‘How should we do WFH around here?’ — and answering it should include paying attention to gender equality and other dimensions of diversity.”
A fair amount of behavioral modification and the identification of biases will be necessary (if, perhaps, uncomfortable) as well. By challenging assumptions about the traditional roles men and women play in households, companies can open the door to making it equally acceptable for everyone to work from home while having their output assessed fairly.
It will be critical for companies to avoid the creation of a two-tier system of those who work from home and those who do not, since that’s bound to end in the assignation of more value to one or the other type of work. Of course, that will require educating managers about these new models and expectations. It’s one thing for a CEO to insist that the company adopt a hybrid model and quite another for managers to treat WFH and in-person employees the same way when assessing output.
While companies likely won’t invest large amounts of time and money in helping employees ameliorate their home situations or cope with burnout, having a transparent reward and recognition system will help guide everyone towards their best work. And those who work from home won’t feel like they need to put in every spare moment of their time just to make up for lack of physical presence in the workplace.
However, there are moments when not all workers can be equal. Performance evaluations should at least have some flexibility in assessing work differently in times of upheaval, whether it’s an employee’s illness or the sudden and unavoidable lack of childcare many experienced in a week when the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country.
These aren’t necessarily gendered solutions, but they aim to solve problems for all employees. And they’re the best a company can do to address the professional and personal issues workers face.
Organizations can’t force their male employees to take over half of the household duties, but they can support flexible work schedules, show compassion and understanding, communicate to ensure job security, provide paid sick leave, and make managers aware that equality is of the utmost importance so that workers are empowered to address more personal issues on their own.